Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Find Me Unafraid: Love, Loss, and Hope in an African Slum

Posted by nliakos on May 23, 2019

by Kennedy Odede and Jessica Posner; Forward by Nicholas Kristof (HarperCollins 2015)

Kennedy Odede grew up dirt poor in the teeming Nairobi slum of Kibera. Jessica Posner grew up in Colorado, privileged by her family’s comfortable economic situation and her white skin. They met when Jessica spent a semester in Nairobi, volunteering with SHOFCO (Shining Hope for Communities), the youth group Kennedy founded. This book tells the story of how they met, fell in love, and married (as well as the story of Kennedy’s life) in alternating chapters. What drew me to the book was the cross-cultural aspect of Jessica and Kennedy’s relationship. I was astonished by Kennedy’s frank description of the squalor in which he lived (in which people in Kibera continue to live). I wondered how he could possibly survive, despite the severe hunger endured over years, lack of basic hygiene and medical care, abuse and violence. Not only did he survive; he thrived,  became educated, and returned to Kibera to extend a helping hand to others. It’s really an inspiring story. One is not surprised that Jessica fell for Kennedy, but she does not make light of the challenges she faced living in the same conditions that Kennedy had known his entire life.

You can watch a nice TED talk that Jessica and Kennedy gave about the stages of forgiveness here.

This is an awesome book. In addition to the love story, the reader will be amazed at how Kennedy and Jessica managed to establish a free school for girls in Kibera. You can watch a short video about it here. To donate, go to https://support.shininghopeforcommunities.org/give/177552/#!/donation/checkout

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds and shall find me unafraid.

From “Invictus” by William Earnest Henley

 

Posted in Autobiography, Memoir, Non-fiction | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Becoming

Posted by nliakos on May 9, 2019

by Michelle Obama (Crown 2018)

Former First Lady Michelle Obama’s autobiography sold more copies in two weeks than any other book published in the U.S. in 2018. (Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Becoming_(book) ). I hope that everyone who bought it has read it, because it’s a wonderful and inspiring tale.

The first part, Becoming Me, focuses on Obama’s childhood, adolescence, and education. She was raised in Chicago’s South Side by loving parents with high standards for their son and daughter, and both children excelled in school. Michelle and her older brother Craig both attended Princeton University; Michelle later graduated from Harvard Law School. Always a perfectionist, always filled with self-doubt, she pushed herself to excel at everything.

The second part, Becoming Us, tells the story of how she met the future president, how their relationship developed, how she realized that she didn’t really want to be a lawyer after everything she and her parents had sacrificed to become one, Barack’s political career from his first race for State Senate in 1996 to his presidential victory in 2008, and the birth of daughters Malia and Sasha. The final part, Becoming More, covers the eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency, and is full of interesting details about what it’s like to live in the White House (kind of like being incarcerated).

Obama writes well–it’s a bit like reading a letter to a friend, casual and direct and honest. I enjoyed every page and finished the book with an even more positive impression of the Obamas than I had when I started it. My heart aches for the time when the people in the White House inspired respect, served the country with integrity and dignity, and shared their good fortune with so many others who were invited to the White House or mentored in one of the First Lady’s many programs. Obama does not shy away from expressing her disappointment and sadness at seeing so much hard-won progress dismantled by the current occupant of the White House: “It’s been hard to watch as carefully built, compassionate policies have been rolled back, as we’ve alienated some of our closest allies and left vulnerable members of our society exposed and dehumanized. I sometimes wonder where the bottom might be.” So do I. But Michelle Obama refuses to become cynical, and so will I. Instead, I will continue to work to overturn the misguided policies of the current president and to “make America human again”.

Posted in Autobiography | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

The Refugees

Posted by nliakos on May 9, 2019

by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Grove 2017; University of Maryland College Park First Year Book 2018-2019)

I’ve been dipping into this collection of short stories about refugees in America for about a year, one story at a time, in between reading other things.

Viet Thanh Nguyen fled Viet Nam with his family at the age of four; his stories are informed by his own experiences as a refugee. I will briefly summarize each story.

The narrator of Black-eyed Women is a Vietnamese-American, one of the so-called “Boat People” who fled the country after the end of the war. Not unusually, the boat was taken over by pirates who raped all of the women and girls. The narrator was thirteen at the time; her older brother, with whom she was very close, tried to disguise her as a boy, but she was discovered. When he attempted to fight off her attacker, her brother was killed. In this story, the narrator, now 36 years old and a “ghostwriter” of other people’s books, confronts her brother’s ghost. “My brother watched me curiously as as I wept for him and for me, for all the years we could have had together but didn’t, for all the words never spoken between my mother, my father, and me. Most of all, I cried for those other girls who had vanished and never come back, including myself.”

Although I suppose the book was chosen as the First Year Book because of its subject of refugees and immigrants, this first story relates equally well to the #MeToo movement, telling as it does of the lasting trauma inflicted on survivors of sexual assault, who may appear to be functioning, but who have lost themselves, or a part of themselves.

The Other Man is the story of Liem, whose American sponsor is Parrish Coyne, an openly gay man living in San Francisco with a young Chinese immigrant named Marcus Chan. Liem is also gay, but has been unable to admit it to himself. By the end of the story, Liem is beginning to accept his sexuality and even sleeps with Marcus when Parrish is away.

“‘They think we’ve got a Western disease,’ Marcus said. ‘Or so my father says.’

‘We?’ Liem said.

‘Don’t think I don’t know.'”

War Years focuses on a family of Vietnamese refugees who are trying to leave the war behind them and move on with their American lives, but it is difficult when some members of their community keep trying to keep the struggle alive. Mrs. Hoa is one such person. She frequently comes around pressuring people to donate to the fight against Communism. The young narrator’s father would like to give her some money to keep her from spreading rumors about them in the community, but his mother insists that giving in will only make it worse. “It’s extortion,” she insists. Eventually, the mother confronts Mrs. Hoa in her home. . . . but the reality turns out to be a little different from what she had assumed.

The Transplant is the story of the odd friendship between Arthur Arrellano and Louis Vu, whose father’s liver saved Arthur’s life. . . or did it?

I’d Love You To Want Me describes the difficult path walked by Mrs. Sa Khanh as her professor husband succumbs to the ravages of Alzheimer’s Disease.  Mrs. Khanh is devastated when her husband insists on calling her by another woman’s name. Can she overcome her feelings of betrayal and continue to care for him?

In The Americans, African-American former fighter pilot James Carver and his Japanese wife Michiko are visiting their daughter Claire and her boyfriend in Vietnam, where Claire teaches English and her boyfriend works on disabling the many landmines. The POV is Carver’s, and he struggles during the visit. He doesn’t like the boyfriend, he is unhappy that his daughter wants to remain in Vietnam (where she feels she belongs), and he resists any accommodation to the place or the people. He picks fights with Claire, who says “He’s old and angry and bitter and he’s taking it out on everyone he meets.”  She berates her father for his role in the bombing of the country and people she loves. Carver, feeling misunderstood, stomps off in the monsoon rain, falls in the mud, and ends up in the hospital with a fever. Daughter has to help Father get to the bathroom, just as he used to help her, all those years ago. This is really a story of a man coming to terms with his mortality, as his body betrays him and his family moves on into a different future.

Someone Else Besides You examines the relationships between the 33-year-old narrator (Thomas), his father, and his father’s girlfriend. Thomas’s mother is dead. He and his wife are separated over the issue of whether to have children; his father pushes him to try to persuade her to come back to the marriage. His father constantly puts Thomas down, e.g.: “You were only half a man before you met her, and you’re back to being half a man now.” If this is how Vietnamese fathers talk to their sons, it’s really harsh. Then again, why would I assume that all Vietnamese fathers relate to the theirs in the same way? Thomas is a fairly passive individual, prone to weeping; his father is his opposite, unemotional and aggressive. Father and son go to visit ex-wife Sam, who is pregnant (with whose baby?). Thomas harbors no hope of a reconciliation, but he finds himself more amenable to the idea of a child, now that the child is about to become a reality.

The last story, Fatherland, is about a Vietnamese family whose father left his first family behind after the war, but he gave the children of his second wife the same names as the children of his first wife. Twenty-three-year-old Phuong finally meets her namesake (who calls herself Vivien, after Vivien Leigh, and is a doctor in Chicago). The story follows the development of the relationship between the two Phuongs during Vivien’s visit to Saigon. It turns out that Vivien has not been completely honest about her situation. Phuong is nevertheless inspired to follow her sister’s example and leave Vietnam for a different life.

The essay On Being a Refugee, an American–and a Human Being follows the eight stories. I think the essay was my favorite piece in the book, betraying my preference for non-fiction over fiction. The author shares his own story and considers the current xenophobia, yet another instance of a recurring phenomenon throughout American history. He writes, “The average American, or European, who feels that refugees or immigrants threaten their jobs does not recognize that the real culprits for their economic plight are the corporate interests and individuals that want to take the profits and are perfectly happy to see the struggling pitted against each other. The economic interests of the unwanted and the fearful middle class are aligned–but so many can’t see that because of how much they fear the different, the refugee, the immigrant. In its most naked form, this is racism. In a more polite form, it takes the shape of defending one’s culture, where one would rather remain economically poor but ethnically pure. This fear is a powerful force, and I admit to being afraid of it.” This essay is followed by In Praise of Doubt and Uselessness, a contemplation of the writing life that led to the publication of these eight stories, which took 17 years from inception to publication.

Posted in Fiction | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Evening Class

Posted by nliakos on April 21, 2019

by Maeve Binchy (Delacorte 1996)

I love how Maeve Binchy draws the reader into the lives of her various characters, and how she neatly resolves the conflicts and ties everything up neatly at the end. Her novels are not challenging, but they are very satisfying to read.

Evening Class follows Nora O’Donoghue (aka “Signora”), Aidan Dunne, Bill Burke, Kathy and Fran Clarke, Lou Lynch, Connie Kane, Laddy Byrne, and Fiona (and their friends and families) through a year of evening classes in Italian language and culture in a rundown school located in a poor area of Dublin. Nora/Signora, back home in Ireland after living in a Sicilian village for almost 30 years as the mistress of the local restaurateur, is the teacher of the class. Aidan, whose wish to become the principal of Mountainview College has been foiled by a man he despises, is in charge of the class. The others, except for Fiona, are some of the students in the Italian class (she is a friend of Aidan’s adult daughters and girlfriend of Barry, who is in the class). Each of the above characters has his or her own chapter, as is common in Binchy’s novels where she weaves the story of a place through its denizens (as in The Copper Beech), and it’s challenging to keep everybody straight and remember who is who and who knows whom, and in what capacity exactly (particularly since the members of the Italian class all have Italian names in addition to their Irish ones: Guglielmo for Bill, Caterina for Kathy, Luigi for Lou, Constanza for Connie, Lorenzo for Laddy, Bartolomeo for Barry–as do all the other members of the class who do not rate their own chapter). Binchy works in loveless marriages, intellectual disabilities, family secrets of various sorts, love affairs of short and long duration, mobsters, bank fraud, sexual dysfunction, and more, all of which she wraps up neatly by the end of the book. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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On Two Feet and Wings: One Boy’s Amazing Story of Survival

Posted by nliakos on April 19, 2019

by Abbas Kazerooni (Skyscape 2014)

From the front matter page: “This book is based on real events that happened to me a long time ago when I was a child. To write it for you I have simplified some events and changed some details.”

Abbas Kazerooni is a California lawyer, actor, writer, and producer. Born in Iran in 1978 to formerly wealthy (under the Shah) parents, Abbas was nine years old when the regime, at war with Iraq since 1980, lowered the age at which boys could be drafted into the army (to serve as cannon fodder, basically) to eight. Terrified, the family decided to leave Iran. Abbas’ father’s passport had been confiscated, so they determined that he would stay behind, and Abbas and his mother would travel to Turkey and eventually to the U.K., where they had relatives.

But at the last minute, Marzieh Kazerooni was denied permission to get on the plane. Desperate, the parents let Abbas fly by himself to Istanbul, where they promised he would be met by a friend who would take care of him. The man did indeed meet the plane, but he did not take care of the boy. Instead of taking him home as he had promised to do, he handed Abbas a list of cheap hotels where Farsi was spoken and left. Abbas was alone in Istanbul, where he would live for several months until he finally received a visa for the U.K.

Abbas was very young and frightened, but he was also cautious, resourceful, and very lucky, He was lucky in that he happened to meet some very kind people who helped him (the taxi driver who helped him find the least unsuitable hotel that night; the hotel receptionist, who took a liking to him; some kind compatriots who translated for him at the British Consulate; and a consulate worker who took an interest in him.  He was cautious in that he carefully hid the money his parents had sent him with, eating only once a day, spending as little as possible, testing out the hotel receptionist and maid until he felt sure he could trust them not to rob him. And he was resourceful in that he had many great ideas about how to save, and eventually how to make, money. He ran errands in the marketplace and found various jobs for himself in the hotel (where he preferred to stay, feeling unsafe on the streets of Istanbul)–as the “tea boy” who served the other guests glasses of tea, as the shoeshine boy the hotel had never had before. Through it all, he hid his fear and distress from his parents; when he spoke to them, he intimated that he was staying in a better hotel than he was actually in and that everything was fine. But he shed many tears.

Abbas’ story reads like a novel. One can’t imagine how this little boy managed on his own for so long in a strange city where he knew no one and did not speak the language. But he did, and his story makes a great read.

Unfortunately, once he reached England, his trials continued. These are recounted in another book, The Boy with Two Lives. But eventually, he made his way to the United States, where he has apparently done very well for himself–no surprise, considering how resilient and clever he was at the ago of nine.

Posted in Autobiography, Memoir, Non-fiction, Recommended for ESL or EFL Learners | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

Posted by nliakos on April 15, 2019

by Sebastian Junger (Twelve/Hachette Book Group 2016)

This little (136 pages not counting the notes) book examines the proposition that modern “Western” society runs counter to how human beings have evolved to live and is detrimental to mental health.

In the first chapter, “The Men and the Dogs”, Junger compares Native American tribal society with European “white” society. He notes that thousands of white people joined Indian tribes (some as captives who opted to stay, some voluntarily), whereas there is not one documented instance of a Native American voluntarily wishing to join white society, and he asks what might make Indian society so appealing to us. Speaking of the period of Western expansion, he notes that both societies were characterized by (to us) abhorrent cruelty, but that Indian religion was less harsh, and the Indian lifestyle was more interesting (hunting vs. agriculture) and included more leisure time and more control over one’s own life. He quotes a white woman who lived among Indians for many years: “No people can live more happy than the Indians did in times of peace. . . Their lives were a continual round of pleasures.”

Junger alludes to the theory of self-determination, which holds that people’s three most essential needs are autonomy (or being authentic in one’s life, whatever that means), competence, and community, or connectedness. Indian tribal life tended to fulfill these needs much better than white society did, and white societies were (and are) characterized by higher rates of suicide, depression, and other mental illnesses. He postulates that our wealthy modern life style deprives us of what we need to be happy. Our children are forced to sleep alone, we are subject to more authority and have a lesser sense of well-being, there is more dishonesty and fraud (and the perpetrators often get away with egregious dishonesty that would be unthinkable in a Native American tribe–e.g., the bankers and traders that caused the Great Recession, who were never held accountable for the vast damage they inflicted on the country and people).

The second chapter, “War Makes You an Animal”, considers the dual nature of war (and other calamities as well)–for participants, it is both the best of times (increased sense of community and opportunities to prove oneself) and the worst of times (physical and mental trauma, witnessing and causing death). Junger notes that both combat veterans and residents of cities under siege miss something about their wartime experience when it is over. He writes, “Large-scale disasters produce. . . mentally healthy conditions,” and provides numerous examples (the London Blitz, the Allied bombing of Dresden, the Springhill Mine Disaster, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the 1970 Chilean earthquake) to prove his point.

In European societies, people rarely have the opportunity to exhibit courage because only certain segments of society (police, firemen. . .) are involved in rescue work and the protection of civilians. But that deprives us of something we have evolved to do and even to need. Junger writes, The beauty and tragedy of the modern world is that it eliminates many situations that require people to demonstrate a commitment to the collective good. Protected by police and fire departments and relieved of most of the challenges of survival, an urban man might go through his entire life without having to come to the aid of someone in danger–or even give up his dinner. Likewise, a woman in a society that has codified its moral behavior into a set of laws and penalties might never have to make a choice that puts her very life at risk. What would you risk dying for–and for whom–is perhaps the most profound question a person can ask themselves. The vast majority of people in modern society are able to pass their whole lives without ever having to answer that question, which is both an enormous blessing and a significant loss. It is a loss because having to face that question has, for tens of millennia, been one of the ways that we have defined ourselves as people. And it is a blessing because life has gotten far less difficult and traumatic than it was for most people even a century ago.

The third chapter, “In Bitter Safety I Awake”, continues to examine the conundrum of why people who have survived catastrophe miss something about that catastrophic experience afterwards. Junger also considers the different leadership qualities that are needed in times of peace and war (and how the Iroquois Nations had two kinds of leaders to respond to these different requirements), and he focuses on post-traumatic stress syndrome (the kind that resolves and the kind that persists) and points out that what most veterans really need is jobs (= a sense of self-worth because they are contributing to society)–not lifetime disabilities payments. Part of the problem, Junger suggests, is that civilians are typically far removed from the war experience, so they cannot understand what the returning veterans have gone through. Returning to Indian tribes of the 19th century, the entire tribe underwent the trauma of war together, so returning warriors had no sense of alienation.

The final chapter, “Calling Home from Mars”, considers what we who live in modern societies have given up in exchange for modern conveniences and comforts, and how making real sacrifices for our community could gives us a greater sense of safety, self-worth, and yes, happiness. Junger writes, There are many costs to modern society, starting with its toll on the global ecosystem and working one’s way down to its toll on the human psyche, but the most dangerous loss may be to community. If the human race is under threat in some way that we don’t yet understand, it will probably be at a community level that we either solve the problem or fail to. If the future of the planet depends on, say, rationing water, communities of neighbors will be able to enforce the new rules far more effectively than even local government. It’s how we evolved to exist, and it obviously works. But this made me think of something Yuval Noah Harari said in the MOOC we did with him a few years ago: human beings evolved to trust the individuals in the small community they lived in, up to maybe fifty people (“us), and to distrust everyone else (“them”). When the “us” consists of people of different races, religions, political and sexual preferences, native languages/cultures, and levels of education, it is not a given that they can actually build that sense of community that Junger is talking about. I would like to believe that they could, but this adds a major complication that was not there when the race was evolving.

Anyway, Junger’s book gave me a lot of food for thought, and I do agree that when we traded communal responsibility for hierarchies where only some individuals are responsible for the safety of the group, we gained something but lost something also, something important for us as human beings.

Posted in History, Non-fiction, Religion, Philosophy, Culture | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

There Will Be No Miracles Here

Posted by nliakos on April 9, 2019

by Casey Gerald (Riverhead Books 2018)

I apparently placed a hold on this book, but I can’t actually remember placing it or why I wanted to read it. Nevertheless, when I was notified that it was available, I duly went and picked it up and read it. And it was interesting. . . . I just couldn’t figure out exactly where it was going or what Casey Gerald’s significance is.

Gerald had a difficult childhood, growing up poor in Dallas; his mother suffered from mental illness and abandoned the family when he was twelve; his father, a former college football star, spent time in prison. Casey was partly brought up by his grandmother and older sister. But he was a smart kid who wanted to please, and he was a good athlete; graduating from high school, he was selected to play football for Yale, which he had never heard of, and felt disrespected when it was suggested to him: Here was my own coach, saying in so many words that I was such a pathetic football player that he’d send me halfway around the world to play peewee football for a team nobody knew anything about. Yale changed his life’s trajectory forever.

He is black; he is gay; he is a Yale man; he graduated from Harvard Business School; he led a black men’s group at Yale, traveled and gave speeches within and outside of the U.S., worked for a Democratic think tank in Washington, D.C. during the Obama administration, attended a CPAC convention to see if he wanted to become a Republican, and considered a run for Congress. Lots of interesting stuff to write about in his young life.

Gerald’s style of writing is unique. It’s not dialect, although there are dialectal elements in it; it’s not intellectual, although there are big words, complicated thoughts, and references to literature and history. There is a kind of dry humor to it as he pierces through the shield of white complacency, but there are passages that break one’s heart, as when he writes about his friend Elijah’s suicide. He is unflinchingly honest. He writes about racism, and friendship, and mentoring. He writes about manipulating the system where who you know is more important than what you know and people are easily fooled by one who has a command of the language of the ruling elite. (This reminds me of Jamila Lyiscott’s wonderful TED talk about being articulate.) I liked the book, and not knowing anything about Casey Gerald before I read it, I never knew where it was headed, so it was full of surprises for me.

Posted in Autobiography, Memoir, Non-fiction | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Fascism: A Warning

Posted by nliakos on April 8, 2019

by Madeleine Albright (with Bill Woodward; HarperCollins, 2018)

Madeleine Albright sets out to define and describe fascism, to follow its history since its inception in 1930s Italy, and to consider whether the United States, under Donald Trump, is now flirting with fascism as a replacement for our democratic government based on the law. She begins with her own personal history as a refugee from Czechoslovakia after it fell to the Communists. She asks why we are where we are, twenty-five years after we “won” the Cold War, and answers herself: One reason, frankly, is Donald Trump. If we think of fascism as a wound from the past that had almost healed, putting Trump in the White House was like ripping off the bandage and picking at the scab. No confusion about where she stands on that issue!

According to Albright, there is no single definition of fascism agreed to by all. She suggests that “Fascism should perhaps be viewed less as a political ideology than as a means for seizing and holding power.” It is neither right nor left; it is a tool. It draws its energy from the anger and resentment of people who have lost something (a war, a job, respect, confidence. . .), who are guided by a (usually) charismatic leader who  brings “deep and often ugly feelings to the surface”–Albright calls such a leader “a secular evangelist” who channels people’s desire “to be part of a meaningful quest”. Fascism is “an extreme form of authoritarian rule”, usually characterized by extreme nationalism; in a Fascist state, citizens have no rights; their mission is to serve, while the government’s mission is to rule. Albright winds up her introductory chapter with this definition: “A Fascist is someone who identifies strongly with and claims to speak for a whole nation or group, is unconcerned with the rights of others, and is willing to use whatever means are necessary–including violence–to achieve his or her goals.” (As I write this, I wonder why she capitalizes fascism. In fact, I don’t think that is correct; see the answer to this question on Quora.com. This makes sense to me, and I will not capitalize it in this post, unless I am referring to Mussolini’s Fascist Party.)

Most of the other chapters concern specific cases where fascism has reared its ugly head, beginning with the first instance when the word was used in this way (In 1919, “a few dozen angry men” began a political movement and chose a bundle of elm rods (fasces) together with an ax that had been a symbol of a Roman consul’s power; their movement became known as the Fascist movement.). Albright writes, “This was how twentieth-century Fascism, began: with a magnetic leader exploiting widespread dissatisfaction by promising all things.”

I was struck by several eerie similarities between Mussolini and Trump: it was Mussolini who first promised to “drain the swamp” (dranare la palude). He trusted himself absolutely, feeling no need for advisors; he thought his instincts were always right. He thought shaking hands unsanitary, and he had little interest in what other people had to say.

The next two chapters focus on Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Franco’s Spain; other chapters deal with  the British fascist movement of Sir Oswald Mosley, American and European fascist movements, Hungary, Stalin’s USSR, Perónism in Argentina, Omar Torrijos of Panama, and Bosnia’s Milosevic. Then Albright brings us into the present: Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Nicolás Maduro,  Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Duterte of the Philippines, and the Kims of North Korea. “The President of the United States” gets his own chapter, and Albright is polite but damning. She doesn’t hesitate to call him out for favoring autocrats over democrats, for undermining the freedom of the press and American institutions like the courts, the FBI, and the electoral system. She notes how Trump’s bad behavior serves as a model for autocrats everywhere and gives them license to turn back democratic reforms in their countries. “His approach is that of a demagogue,” she writes. Nothing new there.

Albright includes many anecdotes from her time as Secretary of State. These are interesting, but I don’t think they add much to her argument.

As you would expect, the final chapter suggests what we might do to counter the rise of fascism in our time. She raises the following questions, and more, about political leaders:

  • Do they suggest treating people who are different as being less valuable as human beings?
  • Do they inflame the anger and resentment of their core supporters?
  • Do they encourage contempt for government, elections, the press, the judiciary?
  • Do they use patriotic symbols to turn people against each other?
  • Do they accept or contest political defeat?
  • Do they claim to be able to solve every problem? . . . .

You get the idea. . . . a good description of 45 and his authoritarian buddies around the world. The answers to such questions, she says, “will provide grounds for reassurance or a warning we dare not ignore.” There is little question as to which of these Americans will discern if they answer these questions about the current occupant of the White House. We aren’t ignoring her warning, but Trump and his hypocritical Republican enablers in the Congress will not easily give up the power they have already amassed. We are living in a perilous moment, and we don’t know how it’s going to turn out.

Posted in History, Non-fiction, Politics | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Les Misérables

Posted by nliakos on March 19, 2019

by Victor Hugo (Classiques abrégés, abrégé par Marie-Hélène Sabard 1996; original published in 1862)

I had several reasons to reread Les Misérables. First, my cousin Brigitte, who lives outside of Paris, had recently sent me a double CD with the original French version of the musical. I’ve been listening to it like crazy and copying out the lyrics from the impossibly small print on the booklet included with the CDs (this requires a very large magnifying glass and natural light). Also, PBS is broadcasting a new six-part adaptation of the novel on Masterpiece beginning in April. Then Brigitte sent me this abridged French version which she had on her bookshelf (“Schools no longer require that students read original unabridged literature,” she complained.) So I started reading it, tentatively at first, but then with relative ease. There were a lot of words that were new to me, as you would expect, but I used Google Translate on my phone, which worked for most of them. There were a few that made no sense (G.T. provides only one translation; if there are several meanings, that’s too bad!) and a few which supplied English words I wasn’t familiar with either (like borne, which was translated as bollard; I had to look it up in in a French online dictionary to discover that it meant a short, thick post).

Anyway, it answered a lot of questions I had while listening to the musical (and some that hadn’t occurred to me). For example, why didn’t Cosette object to her beloved father’s disappearance from her life after she married Marius? The answer is complicated. He didn’t just disappear; he used to come and visit her every evening at first, then less frequently; she was involved in her life as a newlywed and mistress of a large household; she was following Marius’ lead… Hugo goes into some detail (probably even more so in the original version) to explain this.

Something else I wondered about was whether the Thénardier family recognized their familiar relationships, and whether they recognized Cosette as the little girl they had enslaved at their inn in Montfermeil, once they had moved to Paris. Azelma, the second daughter, plays an insignificant role in the novel and has no role in the musical. But Eponine and Gavroche knew that they were brother and sister. In the novel, there are two younger boys whom Gavroche helps when they find themselves, at the ages of five and seven, alone on the streets of Paris, but he does not realize that they are related to him; the reader never finds out what happened to them after the night he hosts them in the belly of the Elephant of the Bastille, a damaged statue where he sleeps at night. The Thénardiers did recognize Cosette as the girl that lived with them at the inn, and Jean Valjean as the man who had paid off her debts and taken her away. In this abridged version at least, Hugo does not delve into the resentment Eponine must have felt when the man she loved fell in love with Cosette. In the musical (in the French version, anyway–I haven’t listened to the English version in a while), Ponine bemoans her fate but accepts that some people are born to happiness, while others are not.

The character of Jean Valjean is the most interesting for me. He begins his life’s journey as a kind of unthinking brute, goes through the horror of incarceration and the incessant pursuit by Javert, but rescues Cosette and manages to raise and educate her despite having no papers (which must have been tricky). He pretends to be someone he is not for her sake. Given the opportunity to shoot Inspector Javert, he sets him free (inadvertently killing him with kindness). He saves Marius despite his hatred and jealousy of the one whom Cosette loves more than she loves him and does what he can to ensure Marius and Cosette’s marriage. He is totally selfless–not really a believable character, but one you have to admire.

My biggest problem with the book is how unrealistic it is for the same people (Jean Valjean, Inspector Javert, the Thénardiers and Marius) to keep accidentally running into each other in different parts of France. (Javert just happens to be assigned to Montreuil-sur-Maire, where Jean Valjean has started a new life as M. Madeleine, owner of a factory and mayor of the town; later he just happens to be reassigned to Paris, just as Valjean and Cosette arrive there to hide in plain sight. Thénardier just happens to inadvertently save the life of Marius’ father after the Battle of Waterloo. Marius just happens to rent a room next to the Thénardiers’ room in Paris; Javert just happens to be at the police station where Marius goes to report the Thénardiers’ plot to murder Valjean. Thénardier just happens to be in the sewer when Jean Valjean is there with the moribund Marius on his back. . . .)

But hey, it’s a good story.

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A Surgeon in the Village: An American Doctor Teaches Brain Surgery in Africa

Posted by nliakos on February 17, 2019

by Tony Bartelme with Catharina Hoek-Ellegala (Beacon Press 2017)

Dilan Ellegala is a Sri Lankan-American neurosurgeon. In this engaging narrative, Tony Bartelme tells how Ellegala escaped the craziness of an academic superstar neurosurgeon career to spend six months in a small village hospital in Tanzania. What he finds there changes his life, his career focus, and his priorities. He realizes early on in his time at Haydom Lutheran Hospital that the constant stream of visiting foreign doctors and medical students has the unfortunate consequence of teaching the Tanzanian staff to doubt their own abilities, to depend upon outside help to do their jobs. Ellegala had an idea: he would teach one of the staff, a young man named Emmanuel Mayegga, how to do simple brain surgery. Mayegga was not a doctor, just an Assistant Medical Officer (AMO), so this might seem overly optimistic, but in fact, he did learn to do brain surgery from Ellegala, and he later taught a young Tanzanian doctor fresh out of medical school what he had learned. The young doctor, who eventually became the hospital’s director, taught a second young doctor. Ellegala had not only succeeded in replacing himself; he had launched a chain of teaching surgeons at the hospital, where surgery had never been done before except by visiting “medical missionaries”. He then became infused with the desire to start an NGO devoted to sending Western surgeons to teach African doctors to perform surgery, rather than sending them to do the surgeries that the African doctors were unable to do. Thus was born Madaktari Africa. Hundreds, then thousands of babies, children, and adults, who would have died without surgery, could now be saved.

This forced me to think about the down side of modern medicine. It works too well. People who would have died instead survive and go on to have children. Earth’s population explodes. People accustomed to having large families to ensure that enough children would survive to adulthood to carry on their genes (and farm their land and take care of their elderly parents) now find themselves struggling to support all those surviving kids. Food, water, and jobs are all in short supply. Of course, I speak from a position of huge privilege; who am I to say that I should live and Tanzanian children should not have the same chances that I had? I cannot say that, yet whenever I read or hear of how many deaths have been averted by this or that medical technology or wonder drug, I cannot help but think that what seems like a good thing can have unintended negative consequences. Sure, if modern medicine went away and antibiotics no longer worked (something that is already happening anyway as bacteria become resistant to the antibiotics that we have) and surgery were no longer an option, we would all live shorter lives. As it is, we are crowding out other species (both plants and animals) and are already starting to see the effects of over-population: wars and massive refugee crises.

What is the answer? Is there an answer?

 

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