Tag Archives: Christian Science Monitor

The World Is a Carpet: Four Seasons in an Afghan Village by Anna Badkhen

World Is a CarpetWhen you Google journalist Anna Badkhen, the one repeating line you’ll encounter is this: “Anna Badkhen writes about people in extremis.” To do so, she’s “spent [her] adult life in motion of one sort or another in the war-wrecked hinterlands of Central Asia, Arabia, Africa.”

Badkhen professes, “I did not have a home,” although she’s been making prolonged journeys to Afghanistan with regularity. Her fascination with the country – and her sojourns there – began “before American warplanes dropped their first payload on Kabul in 2001.” Her latest extended residency finds her based in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif, prompted in 2010 by a visit one afternoon to the tiny neighboring village of Oqa.

Populated by “forty doorless huts” and 240 residents, Oqa does not appear on any map; no roads connect the village to any other. Officials in Mazar-e-Sharif insist that Oqa does not exist. But Badkhen knows otherwise. Oqa is the place where she witnessed the creation of “the most beautiful carpet I have ever seen.” It is that experience – blended with Badkhen’s account of the cultural and political landscape of a people and region in extremis – that forms the basis of her transporting new book, The World Is a Carpet: Four Seasons in an Afghan Village.

Commuting from a working-class neighborhood in Mazar-e-Sharif, Badkhen became a frequent visitor to the home of septuagenarian Oqan patriarch Baba Nazar; his wife, Boston (Turkoman for “garden”); his son; daughter-in-law; and their two young children. The Nazar family are Turkomans – members of the Afghan ethnic group known for their remarkable skills in carpetmaking.

In the case of the Nazar family, their survival hinges on the deft fingers of daughter-in-law Thawra, who spends seven months out of every year “squat[ting] on top of a horizontal loom built with two rusty lengths of iron pipe, cinder blocks, and sticks” to weave a single annual carpet. The necessary wool costs just over $60; the carpet will sell for $200 to a dealer who will send it out in the world where a wealthy consumer (perhaps in the United States, which is “the single largest purchaser of carpets on the world market at the time of this story”), will pay somewhere between $5,000 and $20,000.

“Wherever her carpet ends up, for her work Thawra will be paid less than a dollar a day,” notes Badkhen. That precious payment will need to last the family another year, until Thawra’s overworked body begins the creation process once again. “Of all the Afghan carpets, those woven by the Turkomans are the most valued,” Badkhen explains. In Afghanistan, carpets remain big business. “[A] million Afghans,” writes Badkhen, “one out of thirty – were believed to be weaving, buying, and selling carpets.”

In Oqa, where remoteness offers only illusory reprieve from the latest marauders – government militia, warlords, Taliban – Badkhen cannot safely stay even a single night. Life here is often cruel. In Baba Nazar’s own family, his daughter – mangled as a teenager by a land mine that left her, most important, unable to weave – had no choice but to marry an elderly and nearly toothless sharecropper. Baba Nazar’s son, like most of Oqa’s men, dreams of escape, yet lacks the means to do anything but survive another day. Circumscribed daily by deprivation, men and women use readily available opium as a substitute salve because “[f]ood … could cost five times as much.” It is not uncommon for infants to die of overdoses. Only Baba Nazar seems to know enough to forbid its use in his own family.

And yet even in this harshest of environments, Badkhen is able to capture kinship, laughter, and merriment, especially among the women. She tells their stories with an exacting vocabulary (her prose is dense with evocative words like filamentous cirri, sibilated, alluvial, and eldritch). Beyond her words, Badkhen includes her own ambient sketches that capture the villagers’ daily lives; the active curiosity her drawing initially aroused eventually gives her the opportunity to become an invisible observer. Badkhen was able to watch village women take companionable turns in sharing Thawra’s work (“[i]t took a village to weave a carpet”), giggle over bawdy jokes in the kitchen, and indulge in joyous women-only revelry during wedding festivities.

These are the daily details that each woman works into a carpet: “her future autobiography, her diary of a year, her winter count, with its sorrowful zigzags, its daydreamy curlicues, loops of melancholy, knots of joy.” At the risk of spouting clichés (but don’t they become such because of the universal truths buried within?), Badkhen weaves her own literary magic. For now, the stories of these women (and men and children) will travel to places that none of them could even imagine, to places, ironically, that many of their carpets already call home.

Review: Christian Science Monitor, May 20, 2013 [print edition]; May 30, 2013 [online edition]

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Afghan, British

The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks by Jeanne Theoharis

Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa ParksAlready designated “definitive political biography” on its back cover, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks by Brooklyn College political science professor Jeanne Theoharis will reside in my personal reading history as the most difficult book I’ve ever reviewed. Never before – and hopefully never again – have I faced such a vast divide between significant content and frustrating execution. As the most exhaustively researched biography thus far on Rosa Parks, Theoharis’ new title is inarguably an essential addition to any library or classroom, and yet readers will need serious patience to sift through tedious repetition, fragmented chronology, and countless “might have/could have” assumptions to reach the final page.

Fable, myth, caricature are not words historically linked to Rosa Parks, who is publicly remembered as the quiet, tired seamstress whose refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus sparked the U.S. civil rights movement. When she died at 92 in 2005, Parks became the first woman and second African American to have her body lie in state in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda; 40,000 – including President and Mrs. George W. Bush – bore witness, with additional mourners paying tribute at overflowing memorials held in Montgomery, and Detroit, where Parks spent more than half of her life.

“[T]he woman who emerged in the public tribute bore only a fuzzy resemblance to Rosa Louise Parks,” Theoharis proves. “[R]epeatedly defined by one solitary act on the bus,” Theoharis insists Parks was “stripped of her lifelong history of activism and anger at American injustice.” Instead, “the public spectacle provided an opportunity for the nation to lay rest a national heroine and its own history of racism.” In other words: 50 years earlier, this tired woman couldn’t sit on a bus, but look where she’s lying now.

Theoharis “was captivated and then horrified by the national spectacle made of her death.” She gave a talk about “its caricature of [Parks] and, by extension, its misrepresentation of the civil rights movement,” which she was asked to turn into an article: “It became clear how little we actually knew about Rosa Parks.” Even Rosa Parks: A Life, the biography by lauded historian Douglas Brinkley, “is “pocket-sized, un-footnoted,” while the autobiography Parks wrote with Jim Haskins, Rosa Parks: My Story, is targeted for young adult readers. “[T]he lack of scholarly monograph on Parks,” Theoharis observes, “is notable.”

More than a personal biography, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks (Theoharis uses the honorific Mrs. to add “a degree of dignity, distance, and formality to mark that she is not fully ours as a nation to appropriate”) is a political reclamation of Parks’ almost-70 years of activism. As the grandchild of slaves, Parks knew “[f]rom an early age, … ‘we were not free.’” Pushed by her mother, a teacher, towards an education, “her discovery of black history in high school was transformative.” Family responsibilities kept Parks from finishing 11th grade; she wanted to be nurse or social worker, never a teacher after the “’humiliation and intimidation’” she watched her mother endure. Her husband Raymond Parks was “’the first real activist I ever met.’”

Her acts of resistance began small and early – she refused to drink from segregated water fountains – then public and even life-threatening – she registered to vote and assisted others “despite enormous poll taxes and the unfair registration tests.” She was Montgomery’s NAACP secretary, long aligned with controversial activist E.D. Nixon; she experienced interracial leadership training and race equality at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. [... click here for more]

Review: Christian Science Monitor, January 30, 2013

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Biography, .Nonfiction, African American

Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad by Melanie Kirkpatrick

Please allow me to share a so-called North Korean political joke: “Kim Jong Il and Vladimir Putin … decide to … see whose bodyguards are more loyal. Putin calls his bodyguard Ivan, opens the window of their twentieth-floor meeting room, and says: ‘Ivan, jump!’ Sobbing, Ivan says: ‘Mr. President, how can you ask me to do that? I have a wife and child waiting for me at home.’ Putin … apologizes to Ivan, and sends him away…. Kim Jong Il … calls his bodyguard…. ‘Lee Myung-man, jump!’…. Lee … is just about to jump … when Putin grabs him and says: ‘… If you jump out this window, you’ll die!…’ Lee … tries to escape Putin’s embrace and jump…: ‘President Putin, please let me go! I have a wife and child waiting for me at home!’

Ghastly humor aside, the tragic joke barely disguises the inhumane policies of the world’s most secretive, repressive regime. In Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad, former Wall Street Journal journalist Melanie Kirkpatrick documents the desperate, dangerous flight of North Koreans toward an uncertain new life. Drawing parallels with American slaves seeking freedom 150 years and continents apart, Kirkpatrick traces North Korean journeys through a network of clandestine routes, safe houses, and courageous individuals willing to compromise their own safety to help others.

For North Koreans attempting to escape starvation, torture, repression, and worse, the “new underground” begins just over the border in China. Because of China’s official political support of North Korea, the Chinese government refuses to recognize escapees as refugees (even though China has signed the Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees). Nor does China allow the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to operate in the country.

North Koreans in China live constantly under threat of arrest and repatriation. Women are often trafficked, sold as “brides” in response to a shortage of partners in China (due to that country’s history of male preference that has created a “sex imbalance … [of] epic proportions).” The children of these North Korean/Chinese unions perhaps suffer the most, trapped in stateless limbo: The fear of exposing a North Korean mother’s illegal status prevents a Chinese father from officially registering the child who, in effect, doesn’t exist and therefore has no access to education and healthcare.

Within and beyond China, remarkable heroes extend the escape networks into numerous Asian countries as they work to send North Korean escapees to freedom in South Korea and beyond. These heroes include: Steve Kim, founder of 318 Partners (named for Article 318 of the Chinese criminal code which sent him to jail for aiding North Koreans in China); “Mary and Jim,” a retired couple, who run orphanages in China for mixed children abandoned by missing North Korean mothers and desperate Chinese fathers (the undocumented status of these children makes them ineligible for adoption); and “Mr. Jung,” who has undergone face-changing surgeries to repeatedly fool Chinese authorities while rescuing South Korean prisoners of war held illegally in North Korea since 1953.

The tenacity of such brave individuals is sharply contrasted with the failure of the world – especially South Korea, the United States, even the United Nations – to confront and combat North Korea’s atrocities. Kirkpatrick convincingly argues that escaped North Koreans – from starving children to highly-placed officials – will prove to be the best weapon against toppling the despotic, third-generation Kim regime.

Kirkpatrick is a methodical writer, and Escape from North Korea is a solid, matter-of-fact title that falls somewhere in between the unrelenting brutality of Blaine Harden’s recent Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, and the flowing narrative of Barbara Demick’s lauded 2010 National Book Award nonfiction finalist, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. As literature, Escape from North Korea is efficient at best; it reads like a series of separate articles patched together. Certain details are unnecessarily repetitive (such as explaining yet again who North Korean founder Kim Il Sung is, two-thirds through the book). Other details seem oddly missing and sometimes surprisingly inaccurate. Kirkpatrick refers to the underground railroad-multiplying organization LiNK (Liberty in North Korea) as “founded at Yale University in 2004 by two Korean-American students,” but identifies only one founder (whose story is one of the book’s most inspiring). Meanwhile, however, Kirkpatrick neglects to tell readers about the never-named co-founder who was actually already a California college graduate when LiNK began.

Quibbles, inaccuracies, and typos aside, Kirkpatrick undoubtedly offers an eye-opening opportunity to explore an overlooked, pressing topic. She shares with readers the harrowing testimonies, the wrenching struggles, and the inspiring successes. Regretfully, in its current incarnation, Escape reads like a powerful draft waiting for a diligent editor’s transformative prowess.

Review: Christian Science Monitor, November 26, 2012

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Nonfiction, Korean, Korean American, Nonethnic-specific, North Korean

All Woman and Springtime by Brandon W. Jones

Just as North Korea’s presence in news headlines has proliferated of late – thanks to the installation of the third-generation round-faced despot; nuclear tests; failed missiles; blatant threats – book shelves, too, have seen an increase in North Korea-themed titles, predominantly written by non-Korean authors.

In the non-fiction section, if Guy Delisle’s 2005 graphic memoir, Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea, was entertainingly surreal, then Blaine Harden’s Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, which debuted last month, proved to be the most inhumanely devastating. Barbara Demick’s lauded 2010 National Book Award nonfiction finalist, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, offered something in between uncomfortably comic and unrelenting shockfest.

In fiction, if Jeff Talarigo’s 2008 The Ginseng Hunter was the most luminous about tortured North Korean lives, then Adam Johnson’s stupendous recent bestseller The Orphan Master’s Son was surely the most harrowing. Somewhere within that horror spectrum emerges the latest North Korea-focused title, All Woman and Springtime, by Brandon W. Jones, a debut novel out this month.

In a North Korean orphanage, two teenage girls become unlikely friends. Withdrawn Gyung-ho (named after a boy because her parents so wanted a son) is her family’s only survivor of prison camp. Irreverent Il-Sun, who would have had a privileged life had her mother not died, is for Gyung-ho the quintessential “all woman and springtime, the embodiment of feminine beauty.”

Under the portraits of Great Leader Kim Il-sung and his son Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, the girls toil as trouser seamstresses. In the book’s opening paragraph, Gyung-ho intently watches the “paradox of sewing, that such brutality could bind two things together.” That “methodic violence” Gyung-ho observes will play out through almost 400 pages, leaving such desolation that even the deus ex machina-ending – in equal measures longed-for and implausible – will provide little relief.

Il-Sun’s rebellious need to escape the daily drudgery of the orphanage and factory lands her into the arms of a less-than-honorable young man. She’s forced to flee – with Gyung-ho literally in tow – setting in motion a tortuous odyssey of sexual slavery first in Seoul, then in Seattle, Washington. Before they cross the DMZ, the two become three, joined by brash young Cho, already an experienced “flower-selling girl” – a prostitute – at 19. Before they cross the Pacific, they will add another when brave Jasmine, already trapped for five years in the heinous business, is ordered to indoctrinate the new girls into their dead-end future.

Amidst constant debasement, each relies on scant personal resources to survive – Gyung-ho, detachment; Il-Sun, vanity; Cho, experience; Jasmine, desperation.

As a story, “All Woman and Springtime” is unfortunately driven by predictable extremes: All women are victims and (with the exception of three minor characters) all men are victimizers. Whether in North Korea, South Korea, or the United States, sex is the universal weapon that keeps women and men viciously polarized.

As a writer, Jones’s lucid prose provides brief reprieves from the constant brutality – he can certainly craft elegant, quote-worthy sentences: “This path of survival, and that path of happiness, did not cross,” or “There was never any plan for the future, only a plan to live until the end of the day,” and “The enemy, she decided, was not the communist or the imperialist, but the lack of understanding between them.” Regrettably, Jones occasionally falls into clichéd romance-speak with “She was a girl with a beating heart who had fully capitulated to some unseen suffering, but whose essence still throbbed beneath the surface,” or irregular 21st-century American teenage vernacular with “I’m just saying.” Perhaps a result of lost-in-translation moments, he shortens Gyong-ho’s name to “Gi” (stuttered, the sound would be a single-syllabic repetition of ‘gyuh, gyuh, gyuh’) and awkwardly uses “teacup” as a term of endearment (in Korean, ‘chajan’ just doesn’t work like ‘sweetie,’ or even ‘cookie’).

In early publicity materials – for better or for worse – All Woman and Springtime is being compared to Memoirs of a Geisha, the exoticized bestseller for which Arthur Golden and his publisher settled out of court after being sued for breach of contract and character defamation by Mineko Iwasaki whose real-life story Golden (mis)portrayed. Readers similar to those who bought Memoirs of a Geisha might also make All Woman and Springtime a bestselling page-turner, although to read of one ghastly violation after another is a dark, draining experience.

Perhaps the best – only? – way to experience this novel can be be found in the words of one of its unfortunate characters: “… that being a witness, she was involved, and being involved, she had a responsibility to act.”

Review: Christian Science Monitor, May 3, 2012

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Korean, Nonethnic-specific, North Korean

A Wedding in Haiti by Julia Alvarez

Neither Julia Alvarez nor her husband Bill can remember exactly when she fell in love with a Haitian boy named Piti. But both distinctly recall the first meeting, which happened in 2001 on one of their many trips to Alvarez’s native Dominican Republic. “[S]hort and slender with the round face of a boy,” Piti – whose Kreyòl name means “little one,” was 17, 19, possibly even 20. “Somewhere in Haiti,” Alvarez realizes, “a mother had sent her young son to the wealthier neighbor country to help the impoverished family.” Never having experienced childbirth herself, something about Piti nonetheless releases “unaccountably maternal” feelings in Alvarez: “Who knows why we fall in love with people who are nothing to us?” she muses.

Piti becomes ingrained in the hearts and lives of both Alvarez and Bill as they travel frequently from their Vermont home to their organic coffee farm in the Dominican mountains, where eventually Piti comes to work. One night, Alvarez promises she will be at his wedding, “[o]ne of those big-hearted promises … you never think you’ll be called on to deliver someday.” Eight years later, ‘someday’ arrives … and so begins Alvarez’s latest – her 22nd! – title, A Wedding in Haiti.

A week before the Aug. 20, 2009, nuptials, Piti announces his intention to marry Eseline, the mother of his infant daughter, and wants to know: Are Julia and Bill coming?

After arguing with her conscience (she was supposed to attend a conference at the same time), Alvarez and hubby arrive in Santiago, DR, two days before the wedding. They assemble their motley crew of attendees, pack the truck, and head toward Haiti, which Alvarez describes “like a sister I’ve never gotten to know.” In spite of the shared border, Alvarez has been next-door only once before, a quarter century ago. Piti’s family’s remote home doesn’t have an actual address or even appear on any map, but the adventure – long, uncertain, occasionally illegal – will end just in time for Alvarez and Bill to preside as the revered godparents as Piti and Eseline exchange vows.

The truck must depart immediately after the ceremony, this time with the newly-wedded threesome, as Piti doesn’t want to subject his new family to public transportation. That neither wife nor baby has any immigration documentation is an obstacle they must face at the border. In spite of her fear and frustration with the situation, Alvarez “will not abandon them.… There is a bottom line below which you cannot go and still call yourself a human being.” Over just three days, Alvarez’s familial constellation changes remarkably.

Five months later, the horrific 2010 earthquake hits Haiti: its government reports “316,000 dead, 300,000 injured, 1.3 million displaced, 97,300 houses destroyed.” Piti and Eseline finally learn their immediate families have survived, but Eseline is not well; a trip home is deemed necessary. In July, Alvarez and Bill, Piti, Eseline, baby Ludy, and three more extended near-family, overload the truck and head over the border into devastated Haiti, bearing witness to indescribable tragedies.

“The one thing we cannot do is turn away,” Alvarez insists. “When we have seen a thing, we have an obligation. To see and to allow ourselves to be transformed by what we have seen.” Her bond with Piti allows Alvarez to experience Haiti through Piti’s shocked eyes, and witness his transformation “[f]rom laborer to capataz [supervisor] to president of CJM [Young People of Moustique Cooperative],” as he “work[s] toward the future of Haiti.”

Alvarez, internationally renowned for her novels, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of the Butterflies, says of her latest book (in an essay included with the advance copy), “[r]ather than a ‘me-moir,’ I prefer to call this book an ‘us-moir.’” While Piti’s story takes center page, Alvarez also weaves in her own marriage to her beloved Bill, her parents’ decades-long love story still unbroken in spite of the mutual dementia that has stolen most of their memories, as well as the complicated relationship of two less-than-sisterly nations.

Although Wedding occasionally reads too much like an unedited personal journal – especially the first half (which, Alvarez reveals, is how the book began) – Alvarez’s devotion, her admiration and hope, and most clearly, the love for her extended family, is palpable throughout. The small black-and-white-pictures scattered on the pages help emphasize the individual humanity throughout. Indeed, as Alvarez explains, Wedding proves to be “a love story that is many love stories; a story of how history can be reimagined when people from two countries, traditional enemies and strangers, become friends.”

Review: Christian Science Monitor, April 26, 2012

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Caribbean, Carribbean American, Latino/a

Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West by Blaine Harden

Escape from Camp 14 is the most devastating book I have ever read. Perhaps the resilience of youth got me through the aftermath of learning about slavery, the Holocaust, even Iris Chang’s now-classic The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust, the title I previously held as the most horrific testimony of inhumanity.

More recently, I cried through 2010 National Book Award nonfiction finalist Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. I ignorantly questioned the veracity of the torturous conditions in Adam Johnson’s recent, deservedly bestselling novel The Orphan Master’s Son. I paid attention to headlines about North Korea’s potential nuclear threats and the succession of Kim Jong Eun to the mythic Kim Dynasty.

But nothing prepared me for the odyssey of North Korean Shin Dong-Hyuk as told by journalist Blaine Harden, former Washington Post bureau chief for East Asia, Eastern Europe, and Africa. Shin, who changed his name “after arriving in South Korea, an attempt to reinvent himself as a free man,” is the only known North Korean who was born in a prison camp to have escaped and survived.

Shin’s story is vastly different from that of other survivors; as Harden chillingly reveals, it doesn’t fit “a conventional narrative arc [of survival]” which includes a loving family, a comfortable home, a sense of community governed by moral principles, from which the protagonist is brutally torn. In utter contrast, Shin began his life barely human: his prisoner parents were arbitrarily paired by guards to breed, whatever offspring they produced would become slaves who would work and die in Camp 14, considered “[b]y reputation … the toughest” of the country’s six known camps.

Shin experienced no familial bonds. His mother was nothing more than competition for food. He barely saw his older brother and father. He described himself “as a predator who had been bred in the camp to inform on family and friends – and feel no remorse.” Preying equaled survival. Only much later would Shin learn the criminal history of his family: “The unforgivable crime Shin’s father had committed was being the brother of two young men who had fled south during [the Korean War]… Shin’s unforgivable crime was being his father’s son.”

At 4, he witnessed his first execution. At 6, he watched a classmate beaten to death for having five grains of corn in her pocket. At 14, he survived heinous torture, then witnessed his mother being hung and his brother shot. At 22, he lost a finger as punishment for dropping a sewing machine.

At 23, on January 2, 2005, Shin climbed over the electrified corpse of his fellow escapee, and began a labyrinthine journey toward freedom. His own slight body bears innumerable scars of mutilation. When he escaped, he knew virtually nothing of the outside world, yet he miraculously traversed North Korea, China, South Korea, and finally made his way to the United States.

To call Shin’s adjustment to his new life “difficult” is grave understatement: “’I escaped physically … I haven’t escaped psychologically.’” Defectors understandably suffer from a myriad of clinical symptoms including post-traumatic syndrome, paranoia, paralyzing survival guilt. Shin struggles at an even more basic level: “’I am evolving from being an animal … [b]ut it is going very, very slowly.’”

As horrific as Shin’s ordeals have been, “’Shin had a relatively comfortable life by the standards of other children in the camps,’” a former camp guard and driver told Harden. Others have endured “worse hardship.” Compounding such stomach-churning news is the realization that “[t]he camps have barely pricked the world’s collective conscience.” They hold 200,000 prisoners according to the U.S. State Department and several human rights groups; they have lasted twice as long as the Soviet Gulag, and 12 times longer than the Nazi concentration camps. Google Earth provides high-resolution satellite photographs “to anyone with an Internet connection.” Amnesty International has documented new construction in the camps as recently as 2011.

A book without parallel, Escape from Camp 14 is a riveting nightmare that bears witness to the worst inhumanity, an unbearable tragedy magnified by the fact that the horror continues at this very moment without an end in sight. Inspired by Harden’s front-page Washington Post story in December 2008 – the article from which this book originated – a reader addresses a chilling question to all of us: “’High school students in America debate why President Franklin D. Roosevelt didn’t bomb all the rail lines to Hitler’s camps … Their children may ask, a generation from now, why the West stared at far clearer satellite images of Kim Jong Il’s camps, and did nothing.’”

Review: Christian Science Monitor, April 2, 2012

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Nonfiction, Korean, North Korean

March Was Made of Yarn: Reflections on the Japanese Earthquake, Tsunami, and Nuclear Meltdown, edited by Elmer Luke and David Karashima

March 11, 2011, 14:46 Japan Standard Time: A magnitude-9.0 earthquake lasts six minutes, followed by a 50-foot tsunami that, within 15 minutes, plows inland six miles and causes meltdowns in five nuclear plants. “In one’s wildest imagination, this is beyond conceivable,” write editors Elmer Luke and David Karashima in their introduction to March Was Made of Yarn: Reflections on the Japanese Earthquake, Tsunami, and Nuclear Meltdown.

One year later, writer/editor Luke and novelist/translator Karashima have pulled together a diverse collection of new and previously published nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and a manga to create “an artistic record” of a people’s response to an unimaginable disaster. The writers are mostly Japanese – including major names like Yoko Ogawa and Ryu Murakami – translated into English by an impressive list of powerhouse translators. Although the quality of the final product is mixed – as is often the case with anthologies – the impetus behind each individual piece is heartfelt.

Two stories are standouts, each for the naked vulnerability they display. In “The Charm,” by Kiyoshi Shigematsu (translated by Jeffrey Hunter), a woman plagued by guilt for “her comfortable, carefree life in Tokyo” returns to a town “devoured by the ocean” where she spent a year of her peripatetic childhood, hoping to contact any of her former classmates. Her search takes her to a hilltop playground where she witnesses two young girls sharing a “charm” – a chanted promise – so personal that it makes her feel that “now everything was all right.”

In Shinji Ishii’s “Lulu” (translated by Bonnie Elliott), a nocturnal dog who lives in a “municipal children’s facility” watches “translucent women” magically bestow “the gift of rest” to children traumatized by disaster. Lulu, who has led the cruel life of an unwanted dog, empathizes with five children unattended by the magical women; one by one, with the sheer unconditional love that only dogs can offer, she “pull[s] each of them out of darkness and back into the land of peaceful sleep.” Twelve years later, 32 of the children gather for a reunion at which Lulu is named and remembered.

Many of the other pieces, if not as memorable, share powerfully resonating moments. In Yoko Tawada’s “The Island of Eternal Life” (translated by Margaret Mitsutani), devoted doctors in an isolated futuristic Japan “gather swarms of fireflies” to create light in order to continue their saving work after dark. In Hiromi Kawakami’s “God Bless You, 2011” (translated by Ted Goosen and Motoyuki Shibata) – an updated version of his 1993 story – a man decides that hugging his bear-friend is more important than being exposed to any radiation trapped in the bear’s fur. In Natsuki Ikezawa’s “Grandma’s Bible” (translated by Alfred Birnbaum), a man gives up a potentially easier life in the United States to help rebuild his late brother’s leveled town where “Grandma’s Bible is still somewhere here on the ocean floor.”

Of the three non-Japanese pieces, British expat novelist David Peace’s “After the Disaster, Before the Disaster” is the most enigmatic. After surviving the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake (which previously had been considered Japan’s worst quake), Ryunosuke (identified as iconic writer Akutagawa Ryunosuke by a reference to his death four years later) wanders Tokyo searching for his friend Yasunari (Kawabata, another canonic Japanese writer). Joined by friend in common Kon (presumably Ichikawa, the famed filmmaker, who would have been a mere boy then), the trio bears witness to horrifying destruction.

Together these pieces depict the struggle of a people to find meaning after so great a tragedy. The book’s title is taken from a story by Mieko Kawakami (translated by Michael Emmerich). Kawakami writes of a pregnant woman who shares with her husband a dream she has about “a world where everything was made of yarn.” Cups, clothes, books made of yarn don’t seem too strange, but when she insists that “even March was made of yarn,” her husband can’t understand how “a name we give to a segment of time” could be made of yarn. His struggle for meaning mirrors our own efforts to grasp that which is incomprehensible.

“Words grown old from overuse … grow toward new meanings,” writes Shuntaro Tanikawa (translated by Jeffrey Angles) in his epigraphic poem “Words.” Indeed, the words that follow reclaim and redefine one of history’s most unfathomable disasters. One by one, the writers here “reconceive the catastrophe, imagine a future and a past, interpret dreams, impel purpose, point blame, pray for hope.”

Review: Christian Science Monitor, March 6, 2012 [print edition: March 5, 2012]

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, .Translation, Japanese, Japanese American

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo

Remember the title of Katherine Boo’s new book Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, because you will see it on upcoming nominee lists for the next round of Very Important Literary Prizes. That Boo won the Pulitzer in 2000, a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship in 2002, became a staff writer for The New Yorker in 2003 (contributor since 2001) after 10 years with The Washington Post, and is just now publishing her debut title, will guarantee media coverage. That Beautiful is an unforgettable true story, meticulously researched with unblinking honesty, will make Boo’s next awards well-deserved.

From November 2007 to March 2011, Boo became a regular fixture in Annawadi, “the sumpy plug of slum” next to the constantly-modernizing international Mumbai airport, and home to 3,000 inhabitants “packed into, or on top of 355 huts.” Settled in 1991 by Tamil Nadu laborers from southern India hired to repair an airport runway, 21st-century Annawadi sits “where New India collided with old India and made new India late.” Encircling Annawadi are “five extravagant hotels,” luxurious evidence of India’s growing global presence: “’Everything around us is roses,’” describes an Annawadian, “’And we’re the sh*t in between.’” In this fetid microcosm, everyday dramas range from petty jealousies to explosive violence fueled by religion, caste, and gender.

At the center of Boo’s story is garbage trafficker Abdul, the oldest son and prime earner of the 11-member Husain family who comprise almost one-third of Annawadi’s three-dozen Muslim population. Thoughtful, quiet Abdul, who is 16 or 19 – “his parents were hopeless with dates” – his ill father, and his older sister stand accused of beating their crippled neighbor One Leg and setting her on fire. For three years, the family is victimized by a labyrinthine legal system controlled by open palms constantly demanding payment.

Life continues in Annawadi: Asha, a lowly-paid kindergarten teacher, works her growing political connections toward escaping the slum, determined her daughter Manju will become Annawadi’s first college graduate. Manju’s best friend Meena wants something more than to be a trapped, arranged teenage bride: “Everything on television announced a new and better India for women,” but “marrying into a village family was like time-traveling backward.”

The toilet cleaner Mr. Kamble is literally dying to raise enough money for a new heart valve so he can continue to shovel sewage and feed his family. The tiny scavenger-turned-thief Sunil (first introduced to Western readers in Boo’s February 2009 New Yorker article) worries that he will remain forever stunted, but at least he’s not a “baldie” like his taller, younger sister whose rat bites have become “boils [that] erupted with worms.” Meanwhile, thieving Kalu recreates the latest Bollywood films with his talented impersonations, entertaining slum kids who will never witness such marvels themselves.

Mumbai, for its marvelous rebirth, remains the largest city in an India that, in spite of being “an increasingly affluent and powerful nation … still housed one-third of the poverty, and one-quarter of the hunger, on the planet.” With the wealth of India’s top 100-richest equaling almost a quarter of the country’s GDP, today’s gap between top and bottom is virtually unfathomable.

Having built her lauded career on capturing the experiences of those living in some of America’s poorest communities, Boo moves “beyond [her] so-called expertise” to her husband’s country of origin, ready to “compensate for my limitations the same way I do in unfamiliar American territory: by time spent, attention paid, documentation secured, accounts cross-checked.” Once the Annawadians accepted the novelty of her foreign presence, “they went more or less about their business as I chronicled their lives” on the page, on film, on audiotape, in photos.

Throughout such careful documentation, the one element missing – very much to her credit – is Boo herself. Beautiful is by no means a personal memoir; it is not a socioeconomic study on poverty, nor a political treatise on widespread corruption. Beautiful is pure, astonishing reportage with as unbiased a lens as possible about specific individuals who populate a clearly demarcated section of ever-changing Mumbai.

The details of Boo’s process – with a glimpse into her experiences – are added in the “Author’s Note” at book’s end. Further details about Boo follow in “A Conversation with Katherine Boo” conducted by Random House power editor Kate Medina. Before ever “meeting” Kate Boo, readers thoroughly experience Annawadi with Abdul, One Leg, Manju, Sunil, and so many memorable others. Boo’s presence as the silent reporter remains so discreet throughout that she virtually disappears as you journey deeper and deeper, unable to turn away.

Review: Christian Science Monitor, January 26, 2012

Tidbit: How exciting! An excerpt from this review is quoted on Boo’s website. And can I just admit how satisfying it’s been to watch Boo and book appear on just about every Very Important Literary Prize finalist and winner list throughout this year??!! Congratulations on the latest: the 2012 National Book Award for Nonfiction. Whoo hoooo!!!

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Nonfiction, Indian, Nonethnic-specific

No Biking in the House Without a Helmet by Melissa Fay Greene

You just know that a book’s going to be good if you’ve already guffawed and the type has started to blur (even though you’re trying not to get overly emotional) when you’ve barely even finished the introduction. Welcome to two-time National Book Award finalist Melissa Fay Greene’s latest title, No Biking in the House Without a Helmet.

The premise, so understated, is mind-boggling: “This book is one woman’s musings on the adventures of life with one man and many children.” That “one man” is hubby Don Samuel, who preferred to put the children to bed practicing his closing arguments – as a criminal defense attorney, he spends his days with some of the seedier members of society – over reading the predictable “Berenstain Bears” stories.

As for those “many children,” four are of the “homemade” variety (with birth years ranging from 1981 to 1992), while five more are “foreign-born” and arrived school-aged over the course of another decade, up to the arrival of the last two in 2007. You can do the math: It’s 2011, which means that Greene and Samuel are entering their fourth decade of parenting.

As the first four – Molly, Seth, Lee, and Lily – grew, as children inevitably do, Greene and Samuel, who so loved “the cumbersome richness of life, with children underfoot,” wanted nothing more than for the good times to continue. So, writes Greene, “When the clock started to run down on the home team, we brought in ringers. We figured out how to stay in the game.”

At 42, Greene made her “first-ever appointment with a psychologist” to help her decide whether to have another child. She concluded, without much input from the shrink who “wanted to talk about every sort of unrelated thing,” that the final answer was no.

Then, when Greene was 45, a drugstore kit confirmed that she was pregnant. But she lost the pregnancy and was “overcome with grief and remorse.”

Eventually, at her hubby’s suggestion, she “typed the word ‘adoption’ [into her computer] … stopped grieving and leaned forward, beguiled.”

Given her journalist’s background, Greene first pitched an article to The New Yorker about medical issues related to adoption; she “did not conceal [her] personal interest in the story.” That research led Greene to Bulgaria in 1999 where she found the Greene/Samuels’ fifth child, originally called Christian: “not the perfect moniker for a nice Jewish boy,” the older kids humorously noted, and then renamed him Jesse. Jesse is ethnically Romany; the Romany are also known as Gypsies because (not unlike the way that native Americans came to be erroneously called “Indians”) the Romany were thought to have originated in Egypt when in fact they emigrated from northwest India a thousand years ago. [... click here for more]

Review: Christian Science Monitor, May 5, 2011

Readers: Adult

Published: 2011

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, African, European, Jewish

A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb by Amitava Kumar

If Rip Van Winkle were to read A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb upon waking, he would most likely shake his head and dismiss it as farce.

Alas, you’ll only find this title in the “non-fiction” section of bookstores and libraries; it’s published by an esteemed academic press and written by a respected professor of English at an elite American college. Indeed, “truth is stranger than fiction,” and “you just can’t make this stuff up.” (Although, coincidentally, journalist/novelist/poet/professor Amitava Kumar also had a novel – Nobody Does the Right Thing – published on the same day as Foreigner.)

Novel aside, Foreigner is part contemporary history, part investigative journalism, part political treatise, part memoir – and an absolute must-read. My greatest fear is that the readers who most need to read this book will not.

Kumar is an excellent storyteller. He’s also immensely convincing. Drawing on his vast, voracious knowledge of literature, film, television, and breaking headlines, Kumar makes a case that post-9/11 fear has created a not-so-brave new world of bullies and fools.

Moving fluidly between his adopted U.S. home and his birthplace of India – another country altered by concerns over terrorism – Kumar carefully exposes what he sees as the senseless abuse of power justified by the “war on terror”: “[M]uch of my reportage here is in the service of presenting the anti-terrorism state as the biggest bungler,” Kumar writes in his acknowledgements as he thanks “the non-experts,” “the losers,” and “the small people.”

Kumar first focuses on two ineffectual men, each of whom he classifies as an “accidental terrorist.” He demonstrates in rich detail the ways in which both men were victims of legal entrapment, more guilty of stupidity than actual terrorism, manipulated into crime by others who were mostly concerned with saving themselves in the eyes of an already nervous US government.

The first “accidental terrorist” is Hemant Lakhani, a nearly-70-year-old failed businessman with delusions of grandeur, who was convicted of trying to sell a missile to a would-be terrorist. The missile was a dud, shipped to a New Jersey hotel room by the FBI, and brokered by a “terrorist” who proved to be FBI informant Habib Rehman. Rehman – also a failed businessman – had considerable debts, a self-confessed track record as a liar, and a history of tax evasion. His handsome salary was funded by US taxpayers.

The second terrorist manqué is Shawahar Matin Siraj, a 24-year-old Pakistani American, convicted of conspiring to bomb a NYC subway station. Kumar wryly questions the validity of “prosecut[ing] an individual as a bomber when there is no bomb on the scene.” The lead witness against the unsophisticated Siraj – who is caught on tape insisting on “No killing” and wants to “ask [his] mother’s permission” – was Osama Eldawoody, an Egyptian-born nuclear engineer. Eldawoody was paid $100,000 by the New York Police Department to spy on fellow mosque-goers in Brooklyn and Staten Island. He became an informant via the FBI who literally arrived at his front door because a neighbor reported “suspicious-looking packages on the doorway” (clothing purchased online). The unemployed Eldawoody just “wanted to help.” [... click here for more]

Review: Christian Science Monitor, August 17, 2010

Readers: Adult

Published: 2010

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Nonfiction, Indian, Indian American, South Asian, South Asian American