Monthly Archives: January 2017

Mrs. Mike by Nancy and Benedict Freedman


1947. Paperback. 283 pages.

In 1907, 16-year-old Katherine Mary O’Fallon travels from Boston to live with her uncle in Calgary, Alberta. Soon after her arrival, she meets and falls in love with Sergeant Mike Flannigan, an officer in the Canadian Mounted Police. They marry and his job soon takes them to remote outposts in northern Canada. The novel is about Katherine’s relationship with her husband and it’s also about her relationship with the harsh country and the people who live there. Many of the people she meets are from First Nation tribes such as Dane-zaa (called Beaver in the book) and the Cree.

Mrs. Mike has a brisk pace, of the sort that I really like. Sometimes you want a novel that just moves. In storytelling style, I found it reminiscent of my experience reading Larry McMurtry’s amazing epic Lonesome Dove. Maybe I found them similar because they’re both frontier stories, but I think it’s also the particular liveliness that both books possess that also connected them in my mind. Mrs. Mike is the warmer of the two books, however, and less cynical in its depiction of people than Lonesome Dove.

The cover of my edition of Mrs. Mike touts it as a love story, and that description is true. But Mrs. Mike also has elements of horror as well. There are things that Kathy witnesses and experiences that are raw and terrible, and there are also horrifying stories that are told to her second-hand. One woman tells Kathy of her family’s tragic journey from France to Canada. While on the boat, the storyteller’s sister sickens and dies of the smallpox. The boat’s crew locks the family in their cabins and one by one the woman’s whole family dies of the disease, leaving her the only survivor. It’s an evocative scene, and chilling. But then, tales of epidemics have always left an impression on me.

Mrs. Mike is based on a real person who Nancy and Benedict Freedman met in California, but the veracity of some of the details in the book are apparently questionable. I approached it completely as fiction, however, and enjoyed it as such.

Mrs. Mike is perhaps old-fashioned in some ways, but a number of Kathy’s observations come through fresh and clear. It’s a book that surprised me too in the directions it took, but classic novels are often sneaky that way, taking your presuppositions of the era in which they were published and dashing them.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Becky’s Book Reviews – “I enjoyed the historical aspects of this one. I also liked the romance of it. It was a good, clean read. A book that almost anyone of any age could enjoy–if historical romance is their genre of choice.”

It’s All About the Book – “While I liked this book a lot, I think I would have liked it even more as a teenager. Not sure why exactly. I just think I would have been very much caught up in the adventure and romance, whereas now, perhaps I’ve read too much at this point and the book felt lacking in parts.”

Okay, also must add, I ran across a Goodreads review that panned the book and said each chapter could have been the basis for an episode of a cheesy Hallmark series. Now it’s been a while since I’ve seen a Hallmark show, but I am pretty sure Hallmark productions are not featuring plots full of bear-maulings, disease epidemics and dozens of people being burned alive in a wildfire. Like, what??



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Thirteen Days in September by Lawrence Wright


Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David

Recommendation from: Maphead’s Book Blog

A few years ago, I read Lawrence Wright’s book on Scientology called Going Clear. I was impressed by his writing and research, and later took the opportunity to see him speak at the National Book Festival in 2015. At the Festival, he focused his talk on his most recent book, Thirteen Days in September which is about the 1978 Camp David Accords, a peace agreement struck between Egypt and Israel. This pushed up the book in my priority for reading (I had already had it on my to-read list from Maphead’s Book Blog – see link above).

In Thirteen Days in September, Wright provides details of what happened in the nearly two weeks that led up to the agreement, as well as historical context for the agreement. He provides profiles of the three very different men at the center of the negotiations (U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin) as well as for members from their respective delegations.

Though the book may sound like it has a narrow focus chronologically, Thirteen Days in September in effect covers the whole sweep of the Middle East conflict from the 1940’s to the present-day. Begin and Sadat’s experience during World War II shaped who they would become as political leaders. For example, Begin’s family and community were all killed during the Holocaust, and this horrific tragedy was a motivating force behind his extreme, uncompromising stances when it came to Israel.

Egypt and Israel had been engaged in war and hostilities with each other since 1948, but it was a drain on both of their countries’ resources. Carter hoped that by sequestering the two leaders and their delegations at Camp David (the U.S. presidential retreat in Maryland), a peace might be struck between the two countries. All three leaders were risking their political careers to be there, and there were many times during the thirteen days that either Israel or Egypt’s delegation were on the verge of calling it quits. The U.S. delegation team ended up drafting a peace agreement that was then painstakingly modified based on feedback from either side. Names and wording had deep significance for all those involved, and creative solutions had to be made. (For example, slightly different wording in the Hebrew translation of the agreement compared to the English-language version.)

In the end, a historic and lasting peace was made between Egypt and Israel, and Begin and Sadat were later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their part in it. (Carter won a Nobel Peace Prize many years later for different work and the Nobel committee acknowledged then that he should have received it earlier for his work on the Camp David Accords.) As historic as the agreement was, unfortunately the fate of the Palestinians was not resolved by the agreement. Based on the information in this book, this failure seems to lie mostly at the feet of Begin, who backtracked on part of the Accords soon after the meeting at Camp David. The lack of resolution for the Palestinians is a problem that continues to prevent peace in the Middle East to this day.

I found the passages about the Palestinians very helpful as a frame for understanding where we are presently in the Middle East conflict:

Arab refugees flooded into neighboring countries, and Israel locked the door behind them. Instead of being digested by other Arab societies, the refugees became a destabilizing presence and a source of radicalism and terror that plagued the whole world. Except for Jordan, the Arab states have avoided absorbing the Palestinian refugees in order to keep the conflict alive. The numerous attempts to bring this conflict to an end have failed because of the absence of political courage on both sides to accept the sacrifices that peace would entail.

The last phrase “the sacrifices that peace would entail” really caught my eye. I feel like public discourse is more used to discussing the sacrifices of war (the loss of human lives) than the sacrifices required for peace (e.g. the loss of power).

And this quote also connects the Camp David Accords to where we are today:

In signing the treaty with Israel, Egypt severed its link to the Palestinian cause. Without a powerful Arab champion, Palestine became a mascot for Islamists and radical factions who could only do further damage to the prospects of a peaceful and just response to the misery of an abandoned people.

In addition to being highly informative and well-researched, Thirteen Days in September is written in a very engaging style, capturing the high-stakes drama of diplomacy. If you have an interest in this topic, or are a fan of Lawrence Wright’s previous books, I highly recommend reading Thirteen Days in September. Reading this book at the end of December proved very timely, as the United States had just controversially abstained from using its veto to stop a U.N. resolution condemning the continued building of Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory. I was able to follow this news story with increased understanding thanks to this book.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Alan Chong (2/25/15 review from Goodreads) – “Lawrence Wright turns what sounds like a snore fest – the story behind an ultimately failed accord – and turns it into a political thriller, filled with intrigue, deeply compelling characters, and a rich, violent history that stretches deep into the mythologies of three religions. This is deeply interesting stuff, giving me a new respect for Carter, and a complex look into the deeply flawed characters of Sadat and Begin.

Christian (1/16/15 review from Goodreads) – ““Thirteen Days in September” is a blow-by-blow behind the scenes account of what happened during the negotiations. All the research he did was truly amazing. The conversations between all the leaders were told. Many were based on interviews with leaders who took part in the combative negotiations. He got a lot of reliable information on what happened through a variety of sources.

John DiConsiglio (10/12/15 review on Goodreads) – “It doesn’t hit the heights of Wright’s masterpieces, Looming Tower & Going Clear. Sometimes feels cluttered & wonkish. Mideast-lite perhaps, but still a page-turner.


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The New Odyssey: The Story of Europe’s Refugee Crisis by Patrick Kingsley


2017 (US release). W. W. Norton. 368 pages.

In March 2015, UK’s Guardian presciently decided to ask one of its young journalists, Patrick Kingsley, to become a migration correspondent. Kingsley had already been working in Egypt for the Guardian and had been writing stories on the smuggling of Syrians from Egypt to Italy. Earlier in September 2014, a ship carrying 500 refugees had sunk off the coast of Egypt, killing everyone on board. Kingsley had interviewed a Syrian family who had been set to board that boat, but had been arrested before they reached the dinghy. Kingsley kept in touch with the father of the family, Hashem al-Souki.

When Hashem decided to try again to reach Europe, this time on his own, Kingsley asked if he could chronicle Hashem’s journey. Hashem agreed, and his story forms a narrative throughline in Kingsley’s book on the refugee crisis, The New Odyssey. In alternating chapters, we follow Hashem’s journey Syria to Egypt to Europe (with Sweden being his ultimate goal). He was arrested fairly early in the Syrian conflict and imprisoned in poor conditions without news from the outside. When he is released, a friend drives him home by a circuitous route. “What are we trying to avoid, asks Hashem. The front line, the friend replies.” Hashem and his family attempt to stay on in Syria, but as the situation deteriorates, they decide to flee to Egypt, which was still open to Syrian refugees at the time. Egypt becomes less and less hospitable, and so Hashem and his family, like many others, lay their hopes on making a life in Europe.

The other half of the book provides a larger context for Hashem’s journey – the political and economic realities that drove the mass migration as well as the decisions and factors that influenced the routes chosen by the refugees. He includes the stories of other refugees – Syrians, Eritreans, Ghanians, Iraqis, and others. He interviews smugglers and aid workers. Kingsley takes the reader from a outpost town in sub-Saharan Africa to the coasts of Greek islands to fields in Serbia where a stream of people treks across borders.

Kingsley’s main argument throughout the book is that Europe and other countries failed to manage the migration in a humane and organized way that would have benefited all involved. For mainly political reasons, they persisted in denial, assuming they could somehow deter the movement of increasingly desperate people. Instead, the people came chaotically, preyed upon and beaten by bandits and extortionists, rounded up like animals, dying by the hundreds in the Mediterranean.

An encapsulation of desperation: a former Syrian officer, Abu Jana, fled to Egypt after refusing to shoot unarmed protestors in Damascus. But due to Egypt’s rules about residency, Abu Jana risks being deported by the Egyptians back to Syria where he will surely be executed. ‘Why do we keep going by sea?’ Abu Jana asks Kingsley. ‘Because we trust god’s mercy more than the mercy of people here.’

The Eritreans, meanwhile, are fleeing a country as closed-off as North Korea, which conscripts a large portion of its citizens into the military, where they are often paid very little or not at all, in unsafe conditions. Kingsley interviews one Eritrean teenage refugee who dropped out of school to support his younger siblings, but because free movement is prohibited without school enrollment, the teen was arrested by the police for being outside of his house.

At one point, Kingsley includes a quote from Jeremy Harding, who has also written extensively on refugees:

We think of agents, traffickers and facilitators as the worst abusers of refugees, but when they set out to extort from their clients, when they cheat them or dispatch them to their deaths, they are only enacting an entrepreneurial version of the disdain which refugees suffer at the hands of far more powerful enemies – those who terrorise them and those who are determined to keep them at arm’s length. Human traffickers are simply vectors of the contempt which exists at the two poles of the asylum seeker’s journey; they take their cue from the attitudes of warlords and dictators, on the one hand, and, on the other, of wealthy states whose citizens have learned to think of generosity as a vice.

I appreciated Kingsley’s interrogation of the supposed distinction between refugees and economic migrants. Throughout the book, he shows that people can’t be easily separated into these two categories. I also liked this pointed response from a Cameroonian (an “economic migrant”) on his way to a departure point in Libya: “The white man arrived in Africa by sea without a visa,” says the Cameroonian, “And we have learned to travel from the white man.”

I followed the refugee news story fairly well, especially in 2015, when the numbers and media coverage peaked, but this book still felt like necessary reading for me. Kingsley’s reporting and writing is excellent and humane.

I’ll close this review with another quote from the book:

It’s an odd experience, stepping across a border like this. On the ground, there is nothing to denote the boundary. On the Greek side, there is a field of sweetcorn and, on the Macedonian side, a vineyard. In the middle, there’s no marker that reveals you’re moving between two countries rather than two farms . . . In moments like these, you realise the absurdity of dividing the earth into fairly arbitrary parcels of turf. It’s a facile point to make, but sometimes even the facile feels profound when you’re wandering through Europe with people whose future depends on repeatedly flouting these invisible divisions, and whose own homeland is currently in the process of being divvied up into a new set of arbitrary parcels.

**Disclosure: I requested and received a digital copy of this book from Netgalley in return for an honest review. (The digital copy expired today.)**


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