Books I Read on Vacation

What is the What                 by Dave Eggers

AmercaOctober 510

This memoir of a young boy’s escape from war torn Sudan to a refuge camp in Kenya and eventually to America, is classified as fiction because he was too  young to remember accurately all that happened when his village was razed and he lost friends and family. The tale of Valentino Achak Deng is a true story of one of the Lost Boys of Sudan.  It is told in a  matter-of fact manner yet holds the readers full attention.

I was impressed with Achak’s positive attitude in the faceof such suffering. He retains his faith in God in spite of all the bad things that do happen even after he reaches the “safety” if America. I would recommend this book.

The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion        by Fannie Flagg

AmercaOctober 511

I picked this up at the airport for an easy read. It is entertaining as we’d expect of Flagg.

The Book Thief      by Markus Zusak

AmercaOctober 674

Annie recommended this book, and so, though I seldom read novels, I settled in and took it to bed with me on several consecutive nights. It was a good companion! Set in a Small German town during the 1930s and 1940s, the story of foster child taken in by a kind-hearted middle-aged couple, this is the story of a young girl coming of age, learning to love books, art and people, only to see the uglier side of life unfold around her too.

Yet something lovely remains in my mind after reading it… something beautiful  in the human spirit that cannot be vanquished be tyrants and bombs. A very good read.

The Joy Luck Club      by Amy Tan

AmercaOctober 673

I reread this best of Amy Tan’s novels after finding it on the dollar cart at a used bookstore. It is so telling about how many women lead their lives, often trying to compensate for some imagined insufficiency. I suppose I identify with this mother-daughter saga as I also live between two cultures that have such different values. Values that we tryt o measure ourselves against or live up to. A truly great book!

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana                      by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

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Finally I found this memoir of young sisters forced to put their education on hold and be shut up in the family home when the Taliban takes control of their area of Afghanistan. Kalima Sidiqi has to step up and find a way to support her family in a society where women are not allowed to work or to even leave the house without  a younger brother or close male relative as a chaperon.

Not only does she learn to sew, to negotiate prices and carry on a business, but she is able to teach and  employ many other girls, providing desperately-needed income for many families. A brave and true story.

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The Worst Hard Time

 

Worst

by Timothy Egan

I had heard stories and seen film clips of this devastating period when parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and New Mexico were turned into a dust bowl where no vegetation grew and all the topsoil was carried awaY by the wind. But I had no idea of the impact it had on people’s lives, on the nation and on the whole environment.

Dust storm in 1930s

Dust storm in 1930s

I read for the first time about “dust  pneumonia” killing toddlers and older people alike as the dust filtered deep into their lungs, destroying cells. Since the dust particles had a high silica content, it tore at the air sacs, eventually having the same effect that coal dust has on a miner.

Car buried in dust in Oklahoma

Car buried in dust in Oklahoma

Perhaps the most famous photo of dust bowl misery

Perhaps the most famous photo of dust bowl misery

The author makes history come alive by peopling the book with many rich and colorful characters. This book is truly readable history and I can’t recommend it enough!

Death of a Rebel: A Biography of Phil Ochs

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by Marc Elliot

I grew up listening to “A Small Circle of Friends” and later discovered Bob Dylan. It was the era of protest songs and many of my classmates were drafted to serve in Vietnam. Phil Ochs’ songs are more like mini-sermons. Using irony and parody, he wiittily challenged the status quo.

After reading the book, I was disappointed in him as a person: sloppy, addicted, irresponsible, he neglected his wife and daughter entirely. So I was disappointed more in Phil Ochs himself than in the writer or the book.

If you are interested to find out about the issues of the 60’s, the book gives us some insight. Phil Ochs was a gifted musician from an early age, but he abused himself and finally committed suicide.  Kind of a waste.

Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. VIncent Millay

Reading 005Nancy Milford

Though VIncent Millay had a rare talent and was the foremost woman poet in America, I was disappointed to read about her shallow and self-centered life. She grew up poor, her mother Cora struggling to raise the three sisters after her husband abandoned them. A wealthy benefactress noticed Vincent Millay’s talent and supported her in attending Vassar.

Fragile and tiny with red curls and pale skin, Vincent looked much younger than her years. She signaled a new age of freedom for women in expressing their emotions and sexuality.

My candle burns at both ends;

It will not last the night;

But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends-

It gives a lovely light!    (Edna St. Vincent Millay)

Vincent Millay took many lovers but never seemed devoted to them. She could love many people at the same time and insisted on keeping her freedom even after she married the amazingly kind Eugene Boissevain who took such good care of his “girl poet.”

The only thing that impressed me about her private life was her early awareness of Hitler’s danger and her active anti-Nazi sentiments. She also protested the conviction of Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927, actively speaking with the governor to spare their lives.

Edna St Vincent Millay

I finished the book, but I didn’t feel any affinity with the poet though Thomas Hardy once said that American had 2 great attractions: skyscrapers and the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay. I wouldn’t argue the fact but still feel that does not excuse her for her utterly selfish and indulgent life.

Gweilo

Reading 001

by Martin Booth

A fun and charming memoir of a childhood spent in Hong Kong in the early 1950’s, this is like one grand adventure story! Martin was seven when his civil servant father was posted to work in Hong Kong and Japan during the Korean war. The voyage from England by way of Algiers and Egypt has his mother being sneezed upon and chased by an errant camel and it just gets better from there.

Martin is quite close to his mother and they share a love for all that is exotic and new in the Orient but his staid father insists on keeping to the proper British etiquette. The relationship between Martin and his father is distant and cold, mostly centered on corporal punishment meted out for minor infractions.

Martin has the run of the streets and encounters all sorts of characters and experiences. He and his mother live for a time in a run-down hotel with prostitutes and an odd recluse who once tries to assault him. Martin soon picks uph the Cantonese street dialect and makes good friends with porters and ricksha men. His meeting with one old homeless crone is particularly fascinating!

Martin was asked by his children to write down his stories after he was diagnosed with brain cancer. We are fortunate that he did so. He died in February 2004 just after the book was published.

A heartwarming and entertaining book!

Banker to the Poor

YunusSpeaking

Mohammed Yunus

A worthy tale of how an ordinary exchange student and college lecturer helped hundreds out of the most wretched poverty though developing the idea of micro-loans.

He began by loaning a woman making baskets enough money to purchase materials to make more. This freed her from the high interest extracted by local moneylenders and enabled her to raise her own family and work at the same time.

Later on, when disaster struck the country in 1974, he resigned his teaching position at the university and opened the Grameen bank, working to restore the country and help the poor. Well-written if you don’t mind some of the economic explanations in the latter part of the book.

Banker to the Poor

The system affected not only his native Bengladesh, but spread to other impoverished countries, impacting thousands of people, improving the lives of women in particular. Yunus  won the  Nobel prize in 2006.

Nomad

Nomad           by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Alaan Hirsi Ali

Alaan Hirsi Ali

In her first book Infidel  Hirsi Ali described her journey from a forced marriage in Africa to a new life and freedom in Holland. Hirsi Ali learned Dutch, attended college and was eventually elected to the Dutch Parliament. Gradually she moved away from her Muslim faith and began to question its teaching about women’s place. Continue reading

No Ordinary Time

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Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt , second cousins

No Ordinary Time   Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in WWII

by Doris Kearns Goodwin

It’s been on my bookshelf for several years and now I wondered what took me so long to discover this Pulitzer Prize-winning and very personal  story of the relationship between Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the goings-on at the White House during the war years. Did you know that FDR was elected for four terms in a row?! He is the only president to have done that!

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At the time of his first presidential campaign, he was already confined to a wheelchair after being suddenly struck with polio at the age of 38. He went on to be elected president and to bring America out of the Great Depression with his New Deal measures.

Unable to get around, he sent Eleanor on a tour of many factories and she reported back to him. She even descended into a coal mine to see the actual working conditions.  When touring a mental hospital, she didn’t just talk to the director and take a brief walk through, but visited every ward, every room and checked to see the food they were actually served. Her reports on conditions were invaluable to the president.

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As war production geared up, she saw to it that women were hired and day care facilities were opened at the work place, changing forever the lives of American women.

Franklin emerges as the more likable of the two, always ready to tell a good story, enjoying poker games with his staff to wind down. In spite of his paralysis, he enjoyed female companionship.

Goodwin points out two major blots on FDR’s record, the signing of the order to put all Japanese Americans into relocation camps for the duration of the war. and his failure to allow more Jewish immigrants while Hitler was still allowing Jews to leave the country. Recent private conversations have come to light that reveal some anti-Semitic feelings on Roosevelt’s part. In a conversation with Churchill in 1943, FDR said, it would be best to “spread the Jews thin all over the world.” As a member of the Harvard board of directors in 1923, he thought there were too many Jewish students and succeeded in instituting a quota to limit the number admitted.

In 1940,England was being heavily bombed by the Germans,was virtually bankrupt and  in desperate need of American ships, artillery and tanks. Roosevelt wanted to keep America out of the war as this was the sentiment of most Americans.  Roosevelt developed war production with the idea of Lend-Lease, that they would provide war supplies to Britain and later be repaid in kind. He sold this to the people by telling them that strengthening Britain would enable the Allies to defeat Hitler without America entering the conflict.

Churchill, FDRand Stalin at Yalta Conference 1945

Churchill, FDRand Stalin at Yalta Conference 1945

Universal conscription based on a lottery was set up for the first time. FDR carried this out in spite of great opposition. American opinion was gradually shifting and, after Pearl Harbor, most Americans supported war.

Franklin depended on Eleanor to represent him on many occasions, to investigate and report to him on public sentiment and many social issues. He valued her advice and respected her deeply. However, her intensity sometimes tired him and he needed to unwind with other friends.

Eleanor was devastated to find a packet of love letters from his mistress, Lucy Mercer,  in 1918 . Although he swore never to see her again  he later entertained her a the White House when Eleanor was away and she was present in the room at Warm Springs Virginia when he suffered a  massive stroke that killed him on April 12, 1945.

Lucy Mercer Rutherford, his mistress

Lucy Mercer Rutherford, his mistress

Unfinished Portrait FDR was sitting for when he suddenly collapsed

Unfinished Portrait FDR was sitting for when he suddenly collapsed

Eleanor lacked confidence as a young woman but went on to become the first president’s wife to hold an official office and be widely involved in many political issues. She pushed her husband to ensure equal rights for black service men in the army and navy.

“Eleanor Roosevelt’s stand on civil rights  her insistence that America could not fight racism abroad while tolerating it at home, remains one of the affirming moments in the history of the home front during the war….she was far ahead of the president and of the times in her understanding that separate but equal facilities were not enough, that the fact of segregation itself impaired the lives of the Negro population.”  (Doris Kearns Goodwin, No Ordinary Time)

An extraordinary pair

An extraordinary pair

Eleanor Roosevelt also  encouraged FDR to support workers’ causes, seeing that government funds were set aside for day care facilities and after school care centers, enabling women to work in war production.

After her husband’s death she became one of the delegates to the United Nations was instrumental in forming hte United Nations Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. She remained active publicly and politically until her death in 1962 at the age of 77.

EleanorHumanRights

UN Declaration of Human Rights (1948)

Husband and wife, each having their separate strengths and weak points, they were indeed an unusual and certainly not ordinary pair. I highly recommend this engrossing work by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

And one last thought from Eleanor:

DoONeThingthat Scares You