Monthly Archives: August 2011

Natural Disasters & A Small Photo Tribute to Vermont’s Covered Bridges

Just taking a break from writing about books to talk about recent events a little. I live in the D.C. metropolitan area, and last week was Natural Disaster Week for us and a lot of the east coast. I definitely felt the August 23rd earthquake as I work in Virginia and I was on a step ladder filing something into a drawer. All the metal shelving around me started shaking and making alarming noises. Needless to say, I got down off the ladder and away from the shelves. After it was over, I thought I might as well finish putting that thing back in the drawer, though my heart was still beating fast. A short while later, I heard that we were supposed to evacuate the building. So that was a bit of excitement.

And then there was Hurricane Irene, which in the end didn’t affect me much at all. I was in central Pennsylvania visiting a friend and she didn’t lose her power and when I got home, the apartment was also with power. I have at least one co-worker who is still without power as of today.

But really, it’s my relatives in Vermont that were impacted more. All of them are okay physically and their homes are okay, from what I’ve heard. My grandmother lost power for 24 hours and there is flooding near her and my aunt and uncle who live down the road from her. One of the  ‘cut-off’ towns, Cavendish, is quite close to where they live. Another aunt and uncle had been in Rochester, New York during the hurricane and it took them an entire day to get home to Bennington, VT due to all the detours around the road damage.

Some of Vermont’s landmark covered bridges are included in the widespread damage caused by the hurricane. This caught my attention because for the two past Memorial Day weekends, I have traveled up to Vermont with some of my Virginia relatives to visit the Vermont relatives, and we went around parts of the state tracking down covered bridges. Two of the bridges we saw are listed among the bridges damaged by Hurricane Irene. So I thought I’d put up some photos of covered bridges as a tribute of my affection for them.

The first two photos are of the Taftsville Bridge in 2010. According to the Vermont Covered Bridge Society, it has been damaged by the hurricane and is closed.

The next photo is of the Lincoln Bridge in West Woodstock, which is reported as damaged as well. This photo was also taken in 2010.

The other bridges in the photos below are not listed as damaged, as far as I know.

Gorham Bridge:

View from inside Hammond Covered Bridge:

Pulp Mill Bridge:

And this, I believe, is the Seguin Bridge:

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We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families by Philip Gourevitch

1998. Farrar Straus and Giroux. Hardcover.356 pages.

From: the public library

In a nutshell:

A year after the 1995 Rwandan genocide, the author of this book, Philip Gourevitch, visited Rwanda. We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families is the result of many visits, extensive interviews and research. In the introduction to the book, Gourevitch writes: “I wanted to know how Rwandans understood what had happened in their country, and how they were getting on in the aftermath.”

Review:

I might as well cut to the chase: We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families is a brilliant book. It can be a harrowing read, but don’t let that put you off. Gourevitch’s writing skillfully pulled me into its difficult and complicated subject matter.

What I knew about the Rwandan genocide before reading this book was mostly gleaned from two films about that time: Hotel Rwanda and Sometimes in April.  They were both good films but could only cover so much, given the medium. Gourevitch’s book delved deeper. The book examines the history of Rwanda (and where pertinent, neighboring countries) and how that history built up to 1994’s horrific wholesale slaughter. The author’s interviews with survivors provide chilling descriptions of that unrelenting slaughter. The inaction of the international community is detailed.

However the most incredible section of the book – for me – may have been Gourevitch’s description and contemplation on post-genocide Rwanda. First of all, I knew very little about the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the military force funded and populated by Rwandan expatriates. (As I understand it, these expats were mostly Tutsis or other Rwandans who had left due to the deteriorating situation within Rwanda). I knew that the RPF’s push through Rwanda was the primary reason why the April 1994 genocide stopped. But I knew nothing about the immediate aftermath: how most of the Hutus fled from the RPF into other countries; how the genocide-mongering Hutu Power members regrouped in refugee camps, and how the new Rwandan government started its struggle to rebuild a country where killers, accomplices, and survivors lived side by side.

We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families did so much more than provide me with information; it is filled with an astonishing level of insight about people and what makes them act in terrible ways. While reading, it seemed clear to me that Gourevitch committed his heart and mind to this story.

There are so many quotes I would like to share, but I will share just two excerpts:

In discussions of us-against-them scenarios of popular violence, the fashion these days is to speak of mass hatred. But while hatred can be animating, it appeals to weakness. The “authors” of the genocide, as Rwandans call them, understood that in order to move a huge number of weak people to do wrong, it is necessary to appeal to their desire for strength – and the gray force that really drives people is power. Hatred and power are both, in their different ways, passions. The difference is that hatred is purely negative, while power is essentially positive: you surrender to hatred, but you aspire to power.

p. 128-129

Gourevitch goes on to describe how Paul Rusesabagina (the hotel manager portrayed by Don Cheadle in Hotel Rwanda) appealed to the Hutu Power killers’ sense of power, in order to save the people who had fled to the hotel for refuge.

And here is a portion of Gourevitch’s discussion of genocide:

But body counts aren’t the point in a genocide, a crime for which, at the time of my first visit to Rwanda, nobody on earth had ever been brought to trial, much less convicted. What distinguishes genocide from murder, and even from acts of political murder that claim as many victims, is the intent. The crime is wanting to make a people extinct. The idea is the crime. No wonder it’s so difficult to picture.

p. 201-202

The above sentences come near the end of a passage where Gourevitch has wrestled with the astounding number of people who were killed.

As I said, there are more quotes I’d love to share, but when I tried to include them in this post, I realized that there was too much contextual explanation I would need to provide in order for the quotes to fully make sense.

As with Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On about the early years of AIDS in America, Gourevitch’s book made me want to throw things as I read about the inaction of ostensibly beneficent organizational bodies. It’s also a book that made me contemplate some current events at a different angle.

We wish to inform you… is a book I talked about to others as I was reading it, and the family and friends I talked to didn’t shy from the topic at all, and we had some engaged discussions as a result.

Here are some others’ thoughts:

Book Addiction – “Gourevitch is an amazing journalist – the way he brought this time to life for the reader is stunning.  He did a great job mixing politics with stories of genocide survivors – although there is a LOT of politics in this book.”

Maw Books – “What I did learn from reading this book, is that when I read books about atrocities, horrors, genocides and such, my interest lies in the human story.  I’ll give Philip Gourevitch credit, he tried.  But I wanted more.  I guess I prefer memoirs rather than accounts of the political atmosphere . . . I do think that he did an excellent job giving us in depth coverage of the situation and anybody can learn something from reading this story.”

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BAND Discussion: How did you get into non-fiction?

The Bloggers’ Alliance of Nonfiction Devotees (B.A.N.D) has a new discussion question for August, put forward by blogger Amy of Amy Reads.

The question is: How did you get into reading nonfiction? Do you remember your first nonfiction book or subject? If so, do you still read those subjects?

I was hoping that this question would be asked! It’s such fun to recount the discovery of a passion. I got quite into the ‘research’ for this question: school papers were unearthed, a high school books-read list was consulted, memory was racked, titles and authors were confirmed on the internet.

While I mostly read fiction books for fun as a child, I wasn’t averse to their factual brethren. I still have my worn copy of Discovering Acadia: A Guide for Young Naturalists, written and illustrated by Margaret Scheid. (My family lived on Mount Desert Island, Maine for a time, and 44% of the island is Acadia National Park.)

DK Books were a favorite nonfiction staple of my classmates and myself, with their characteristically pretty layouts and photos. My childhood nonfiction library picks tended to be about animals. I especially loved wolves and had owned a small factbook about them. When I was in 8th grade, I received a bookstore gift certificate for Borders and bought Farley Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf. As I recall, I was disappointed in the book, wanting more wolves and less Mowat.

In 8th grade, I also read a couple of good nonfiction books that I picked to meet school assignments. One was a memoir of sorts called The New Year’s Owl by Susan Hand Shetterly. I remember snatches of it, like how she worked in a cannery in Maine, and her first tries at raising chickens. She has a new book out now that I had added to my to-read list months ago, not recognizing her name at the time.

I also read a book called Forests on Fire by Gregory Vogt about which the School Library Journal said, “Vogt has made difficult material accessible not only to teens, but to anyone needing a clear exposition of this complex topic.” I remember being very engaged in this science book, including its explanation of the Fire Triangle (fuel-oxygen-heat), and concepts about fire ecology. The book was also involved in a little bizarre episode when a trouble-making classmate stole it from my possession, led me on a embarrassingly futile chase in the library when I tried to get it back, and then she hid it in her locker for at least a day. I guess she knew taking a library book from me would push my buttons.

In high school, I joined a book club that mostly consisted of teachers. We read a couple of nonfiction books, including Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. We also chose the autobiography I, Rigoberta Menchu at about the time that its veracity was challenged. I actually don’t think I finished that one.

I was exploring nonfiction on my own time too, with a taste for memoirs. Titles that I remember or that I found from an old reading list include: We Band of Angels: The Untold Story of American Nurses Trapped on Bataan by the Japanese by Elizabeth M. Norman; Looking for Lost Bird: A Jewish Woman Discovers Her Navajo Roots by Yvette Melanson; The Color of Water by James McBride.

I had less luck with biographies. I remember picking up a Nellie Bly biography from my public library’s shelves and being utterly bored with it, despite the fact that I had found Nellie Bly fascinating when I learned about her in school. I must admit, I think my avoidance of biography traces back to this one book.

Strangely enough, my first thought when I read this month’s question was: The Perfect Storm. But I didn’t read that book until my freshman year of college, according to my reading journal. And clearly, I had been reading nonfiction well before that. However, I think Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm was the first nonfiction book that I adored, with the added boost of a nascent adult’s passion. I have only read it that one time but the memory of reading it is strong. I remember finding Junger’s description of drowning so intense that I had to put the book down. Junger was probably the first nonfiction author who I ‘followed up’ with, by reading his book Fire a year later. You could say I had a bit of a fan crush on Junger.

So, my love of nonfiction continued into adulthood. I took a class that was entirely devoted to reading and writing memoirs. I wrote my English major senior thesis on autobiography. In my current nonfiction reading, I continue to gravitate toward books about nature and the environment and I still read memoirs.

For my blog readers, how would you respond to the discussion question?

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Say You’re One of Them by Uwem Akpan

2008. Little, Brown and Company. Hardcover. 358 pages.

From: the public library

In a nutshell:

Say You’re One of Them is a collection of five stories (two long ones and three shorter ones) that all concern African children caught in some level of peril.

Review:

When there was buzz about Say You’re One of Them a few years ago, the cover image stuck in my mind. I didn’t remember quite what the book was about – I believe I vaguely thought it was about a child soldiers in Africa – but the cover continued to catch my attention.

This is what the five stories are actually about: “Ex-Mas Feast” tells of a boy whose older barely-teenage sister works as a prostitute in Nairobi, Kenya. In “Fattening for Gabon”, two children are unknowingly being prepared to be sold into slavery by their uncle. “What Language is That?” is about two little Ethiopian girls – one Muslim, one Christian – whose friendship is forbidden by their parents. “Luxurious Hearses” follows a teenage Muslim boy who is trying to reach relatives in southern Nigeria by pretending to be a Christian on a bus full of Christians. “My Parents’ Bedroom” takes place during the 1994 Rwandan genocide and is from the perspective of a young girl whose father is Hutu and whose mother is Tutsi.

What you get from Akpan’s stories are a firm sense of place and an increased grasp of the forces shaping the lives in that place. Unfortunately, Akpan’s writing voice is inconsistent; he cannot quite settle into the voices of the children. This distracted me, especially in the first-person stories. Akpan would try to keep a limited child’s view of the situation, but sometimes an omniscient distance crept into the telling, awkward references to the bigger picture.

I’ll try to illustrate with an example from “Fattening for Gabon”:

She started giggling, a rubbery sonority muffled by her body. It was if she was mocking me or perhaps mocking all child traffickers of this world.

p. 150

In the context of this quote, ten-year-old Kotchikpa and his sister Yewa had been locked in a room after an escape attempt. It didn’t make sense to me that Kotchikpa would be thinking of their situation in the context of global child trafficking. It came off as the author speaking, not his character.

“Fattening for Gabon” is actually the story I thought was the best in the collection. From the outset, you know the children are being considered for trade. The story begins with the uncle ‘suddenly’ coming into money and buying a motorbike. As the story continues, the two siblings meet the traffickers who pretend that they are from an NGO that will take the children to a new good home. Their uncle’s behavior gets increasingly bizarre, and slowly Kotchikpa realizes that his trust in the adults has been betrayed. It’s a claustrophobic story. What I thought Akpan got exactly right in this story was his depiction of five-year-old Yewa. She was a vivid character, with a tendency to be obstinate. I think she is what I will remember most about Say You’re One of Them.

“What Language is That?” is the shortest story, and with the tricky second-person perspective, it comes off as a writing exercise. I could not finish “Luxurious Hearses” which is the longest story in the book.  After I read a little over 15 dragging pages of it, I decided the narrative wasn’t engaging enough for me to finish reading it.

In Say You’re One of Them, most of the child protagonists are left in limbo, their futures bleak. The book serves to shine a light on their plight and for that I am appreciative. And I like that it’s a book about Africa by an African man (Akpan is Nigerian.) Sadly, I think I’ve only read one other fiction book by an African author (also Nigerian): Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus. I have some others on my to-read list that I’d like to get to (more on that later).

I saw a comment by a reviewer on goodreads named Michael Klass where he stated about Say You’re One of Them: “They are, none of them, happy stories, and herein lies my only regret with this book: It did little to expand my view of the African continent beyond the stereotypes and common wisdom of war, hunger, strife, and religiously motivated madness. That said, it was clearly never the author’s intention to focus on the progress that’s been made in many African nations, but rather to broaden the reader’s understanding of the atrocities that have occurred there. ”

I do agree with this statement. I’m not tired of having my eyes opened to what’s going on in the world, but I do feel the majority of the stories (fiction & non-fiction) that I’ve consumed about Africa have been very much “issue” driven.

In contrast, I think of the documentary miniseries called Long Way Down, where actors Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman motorcycle from Scotland to South Africa. As they travel through Africa, they only have a brief experience with each country they pass through, but watching the episodes, I was struck by the beauty and joy they experienced on their trip. It’s not that I thought these attributes were lacking in Africa, it’s just that they had rarely been so front and center.

Some of the books on my to-read list by African authors include Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin, and two detective stories: Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartey and Tail of the Blue Bird by Nii Ayikwei Parkes. While not necessarily books that will be ‘happy’, the first sounds like it will be about life forged after tragedy and the latter two will be genre fiction set in Africa, which will be a different take for me.

Other reviews on Say You’re One of Them:

The Book Brothel – “Akpan does a brilliant job of capturing the naive hopefulness of children – and the wisdom that living in Africa has forced upon them.”

Bermudaonion’s Weblog – “I enjoyed Say You’re One of Them and think it’s a significant book, but I found some of the dialogue very difficult to read.  I think it would have been even harder if I didn’t know some French.  There were times when I had to read sentences several times to extract their meaning.”

Leaning Towards the Sun – ” . . . I think the stories go beyond Africa and expand to reflect what is possible when there are misunderstandings in our world. These stories are happening and can happen anywhere.”

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Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen

2007. Bantam Books. Hardcover. 290 pages.

From: the public library

In a nutshell:

Claire and Sydney Waverley were not close sisters growing up, each resenting some aspect about the other. Sydney left home immediately after high school and Claire inherited the family home and its magical apple tree. When Sydney flees with her young daughter to her hometown to escape an abusive relationship, the sisters get a chance to know each other all over again.

Review:

I read Sarah Addison Allen’s The Girl Who Chased the Moon earlier this summer and enjoyed it for what it was, a light summer read. I had a few quibbles but obviously not major ones as I decided to read another book by her, Garden Spells. I picked it up after work on a Friday and finished it hours later. It was a perfect end-of-the-week bit of escapism.

Garden Spells is extremely similar to The Girl Who Chased the Moon plot-wise, but I thought Garden Spells was the better of the two. I was equally interested in both sisters’ storylines, whereas in The Girl Who Chased the Moon, I thought the teenage girl’s story was a little weaker.

Also, I thought the magic in Garden Spells was more intriguing and organically whimsical than in the other book. I loved the little details, like how sometimes when everyone laughs at once in the old family home, all the windows open. If I had a quibble with Garden Spells, I guess I didn’t much care for Emma Clark’s story, although I appreciated that she was made a human being and not a villainess.

Having read two books by Allen this summer, their similarities just jump out at me. For instance, although I would characterize Allen’s books as light, good-humored fiction, cruelty and sadness still exist in her characters’ lives. However, cruelty and sadness predominantly reside in the past (childhood and especially high school years) or if the more recent past, they occurred somewhere other than the hometown. Returning to one’s hometown is associated with the start of healing, and reconnection with old friends and possible future lovers. Revelations will be made about dead parents.

Allen’s books are romantic; other types of relationships are definitely important, but the romances are certainly central to the story. One of the two main female characters (the one that makes yummy food for a living) will be resistant to the persistent and charming man pursuing her but will slowly melt her defenses after a couple scorching scenes. Small towns thrive and one can find jobs there. The hometowns are a fantasy place where readers and characters both find escape and refuge (the reader only temporarily, the characters presumably forever).

I really loved that the end of Garden Spells was told from the perspective of Bay, Sydney’s young daughter. It was just the right touch, to see things from a child’s eye, a child that has found a place where she belongs and where she is safe.

Others’ reviews:

Educating Petunia – “There are certain types of chick lit. that I detest and there are some that I enjoy. Garden Spells fits into the latter category . . . What I did mind was the ending. I was so disappointed at the stupidity of the ending.”

Reading Matters – “It’s slightly predictable and the romantic elements are cliched, but this is balanced by a tightly written plot and such glorious descriptions of food you can’t help but feel hungry as you turn each page.”

write meg! – “No character in the book seemed to be thrown into the story — everyone had a purpose, and everyone had a place.”

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Slew of reviewlets

When I first started blogging, I was never behind on reviewing what I had just read. If a book took longer than expected to finish, I remember worrying that in the meantime I had nothing to write because I’d already reviewed the previous book. Well, those days are over. I usually have a backlog now, which is actually not an unpleasant thing.

So this is kind of a clean-up post. I thought about leaving some of the books completely unremarked upon. I don’t want to feel compelled that I should write about every book that I read. But writing about them all does give me some satisfaction, so here we go.

The Heart of Christianity by Marcus J. Borg

I actually read this book back in June and had to turn it into the library right before I left for my San Francisco vacation. My reason for not reviewing this book up is not because I have little to say on it. Indeed, this book may possibly be one of the most personally impacting books for me this year. Borg offers a refreshing take on the Christian faith and the Bible. I love his muses: the quotes Borg uses from writers throughout the ages are very choice and memorable, such as “hatching of the heart.”

Another excerpt: “Charity never offends; a passion for justice often does. To paraphrase Roman Catholic bishop Dom Helder Camara from Brazil: ‘When I gave to the poor, they called me a saint; when I asked why there were so many poor, they called me a communist.'”

I’m still quietly and internally filtering through the book’s presented ideas and perspectives at this point. I would like to read it again.

Diplomatic Incidents by Cherry Denman

One of my co-workers picked up this 224 page book in an airport while on the way back from a trip to Iceland. Denman is British and her husband was a diplomat for about 25 years in various posts. The book is a collection of anecdotes both from her own experiences and also from stories told to them by others in the diplomatic community. These are tales of cultural faux pas, suspected surveillance, and travel. I’m betting that Denman is a hoot at parties, the guest who tells all the best stories. The book is very light and breezy. I recommend consuming it as a literary sorbet between meatier reads.

The Dashwood Sisters Tell All by Beth Patillo

My mom gave this to me as a birthday gift – yes, she is a supplier for my book habit. I haven’t read too many Austen spin-off books. There are so many out now. The Dashwood Sisters Tell All is about two very different sisters whose mother – an Austen aficionado – bequeaths her estate to them in her will on the condition that they both take an Austen tour in England together. I appreciated that the sisters were not Austen fans themselves. Also, I could tell that the author did her research on the places, which was both good for Austen tidbits of knowledge and bad because sometimes the book sounded exactly like an author’s research notes. The characters were slightly slavish echoes of the Dashwood sisters of Sense and Sensibility. I wished that they had felt more like real people. I found the Austen diary mystery subplot to be silly. So, in the end, the book wasn’t my cup of tea.

“Alpha and Omega” from the compilation On the Prowl by Patricia Briggs

This is a short story that kicks-off Briggs’ “Alpha and Omega” series, which is a spin-off of the Mercy Thompson werewolf series. I had actually read the first two books in the “Alpha and Omega” series before reading the short story that truly starts off Charles and Anna’s story. So let me just say that the short story really should be read first.  I definitely feel that a re-read of the series is in order, now that I have the groundwork and setting tone of the short story in my head. About the story itself, well Briggs is my urban fantasy catnip. I like the world she has created in her books. Her main female characters – Anna and Mercy – have a number of meaningful relationships – not just romantic ones – and both are occupied with figuring out their place in the supernatural order of things. I skimmed the rest of the stories in On the Prowl but they weren’t really my thing.

The Surgeon by Tess Gerritsen

I think this author and her series was recommended by Savidge Reads. This is a medical mystery by an author who does have a medical background, so the descriptions of the murder victims and surgery scenes are full of gruesome, but presumably accurate, details. (I quickly learned that this is decidedly not a lunch break book.) The main characters include Catherine Cordell, a surgeon who, a few years back, shot dead a serial killer after being drugged and raped by him. Now relocated to Boston, she is stunned to hear from police detectives Thomas Moore and Jane Rizzoli that someone in Boston is murdering women using the dead serial killer”s M.O. There is a romantic subplot between Cordell and Moore. Rizzoli spends most of the time having a chip on her shoulder but gets some redeeming moments near the end. The rest of the series apparently follows Rizzoli.

I kind of get tired of this trope of the brilliant serial killer. I have enjoyed serial killer books before (see: Monkeewrench series by P.J. Tracy) but in this one, I was just wincing through the police profiler’s description of the killer and the sections told from the killer’s perspective. Maybe I’m just getting tired of reading about the unique ways that literary serial killers brutalize their victims, according to their particular twisted philosophy.

I was drawn in to read this book because of the author’s background. I do like it when the author’s other or previous job informs their writing. But I think what I truly like is when the author conveys their work culture well. This medical mystery had scenes set in the hospital, but the medical know-how came out mostly in the descriptions of the victims and the procedures used to save them. Not the book’s fault for failing to meet my own predilections. Now I know more about what I look for in a thriller. (Something like Kermit Roosevelt’s In the Shadow of the Law comes to mind. There is a mystery there, but heavily wrapped in interesting descriptions of life in a law firm.)

 

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