Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for December, 2014

The Surgeon and the Shepherd: Two Resistance Heroes in Vichy France

Posted by nliakos on December 27, 2014

by Meg Ostrum (University of Nebraska Press 2004)

This is the story of how Dr. Charles Schepens, a Belgian ophthalmologist; Jean Sarochar, a Basque shepherd; and a whole lot of other people worked together to help various people escape Vichy (and then German-occupied) France over the Pyrenées during the second World War. They used an abandoned sawmill, which they bought and renovated, as a cover and a way to provide employment to many who needed it. Eventually, Dr. Schepens, operating under the name of Jacques Pérot, was forced to flee himself. He survived the war with his family and eventually immigrated to America, where he invented a device called the binocular indirect ophthalmoscope, which enables doctors to examine the retina. Jean Sarochar died of old age near his home village of Mendive, in the Basque Country. These unlikely and unlike partners together helped many people to cross the border into Spain. Meg Ostrum learned about their story while visiting Mendive and located Dr. Schepens in Boston. She interviewed all the involved persons who were still living to write the book, which has somewhat more detail than is necessary for the casual reader (university presses!), but it was pretty interesting to learn about daily life under the Vichy government, Basque customs, etc.

It held a certain added interest for me because my second cousin, Jean-Pierre Kroll, and his parents escaped over the Pyrenées into Franco’s Spain, where like many of the escapees described in the book, they were taken into Spanish custody and eventually made it to America, where they spent the war years. I don’t think they were helped by Schepens and Sarochar because Jews were not among their usual “clients”, but who knows? They could have been, and in any case, much about their story would have been similar.

See also

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

Translation Nation: Defining a New American Identity in the Spanish-Speaking United States

Posted by nliakos on December 14, 2014

by Héctor Tobar (Riverhead Books 2005)

Héctor Tobar grew up in Los Angeles; his parents immigrated to the U.S. from Guatemala. He is a journalist who traveled throughout the United States and Latin America interviewing immigrants, children of immigrants, parents of immigrants, legal and illegal aliens, would-be border-crossers, day laborers and workers in chicken plants, radio hosts and newspaper owners, politicians and farmers and soldiers, teachers and students–just about every kind of Latino-American you can think of and also the people who employ them,  work with them and for them, help them, teach them, and try to prevent them from entering the country. He writes about Guatemalans and Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and Cubans; they live in Alabama and Georgia, California and Florida and New York, Michigan and Kansas and Nebraska, where whole neighborhoods and even whole towns have become Hispanic. He travels to many places in Mexico, to Puerto Rico,  Bolivia, Argentina and even Iraq in search of the story of Spanish America.

It’s a fascinating story, and Tobar tells it well. We meet people of exceptional courage–people who refuse to give up their dream of a better life for themselves and for their families in the face of discrimination and prejudice. Tobar mixes in his own story as a hyphenated American–one who looks like one thing and sounds like another.

All Americans should read this book, because our present and our future include millions of people like those described here. We should know their stories.

Posted in Non-fiction | Leave a Comment »

Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison

Posted by nliakos on December 4, 2014

by Piper Kerman (Spiegel & Grau 2011)

I have never seen the Netflix series based on this book, and I knew almost nothing about it when a colleague lent it to me this week as I was finishing The Last Hunger Season. But it looked interesting, so I read it. It was interesting.

Piper Kerman led a pretty cushy life punctuated by some post-college international thrill-seeking. The thrills included some illegal activities which eventually caught up with her, years after she had left that life behind her and had a career and a serious boyfriend. She was arrested, tried, pled guilty, and after some years of supervised freedom while ostensibly waiting to testify at the trial of a co-defendant, was incarcerated at the federal women’s prison in Danbury, Connecticut. This book tells the story of her time in Danbury.

Kerman was not a typical prisoner: well-educated and white, with a supportive fiancé and family on the outside and expensive legal representation. Her fellow prisoners were mostly poor black and Hispanic women with court-appointed lawyers who had no time for them. Kerman learned to appreciate her good fortune and also to understand that she was not better than those other women, some of whom she became very close to.

She describes the ups and downs of prison life–mostly downs, yes, but punctuated with supportive, caring relationships among the women, who make the best of a bad situation (with creative decorations for birthdays and Christmas, inventive Halloween costumes, and workarounds like “prison cheesecake” and maxipads used for cleaning). She reminds us that unlike her, most of the other women she met would not find a place to live and a job waiting for them upon their release, and she shows just how ill-prepared they are to meet the obstacles they will surely face “on the streets”.

In one of the startling statistics in the book, Kerman points out that the United States, with five percent of the world’s population, incarcerates 25 percent of its prisoners, and that in choosing to “support” such an extensive prison system, we are choosing not to support schools, libraries, community centers, and other institutions that might help people to avoid prison in the first place.

A very worthwhile book.

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

The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change

Posted by nliakos on December 1, 2014

by Roger Thurow (The Chicago Council on Global Affairs /Public Affairs 2012)

Former Wall Street Journal reporter and senior fellow for Global Agriculture and Food Policy at the CCGA Roger Thurow spent much of a year with four “smallholders” in western Kenya. (Smallholders are subsistence farmers who grow mostly maize, in this case, on an acre of land or less.) Thurow follows the four families, all of whom belong to One Acre Fund, an NGO founded by Korean American business school graduate Andrew Youn.  (Youn talks about One Acre Fund in this short video.) The organization provides hybrid seed and fertilizer to its members along with instruction in how to plant, fertilize, and store their crop. (This reminded me of the TED Talk by Italian aid worker Ernesto Sirolli in which he mocks the idea that Americans or Europeans can teach African farmers how to farm in Africa, but according to Thurow, the traditional way of planting, at least in this Kenyan community, was to throw the seeds at the ground and hope for the best.)  The goal is to move these farm families away from pure subsistence farming and into growing enough so that they can actually make a living by selling their surplus (the change of the subtitle).

Achieving the goal isn’t easy, however, because the vagaries of the rainy and dry seasons and the frequent sudden need for cash to cover medical care or school fees constantly undermines the best intentions. For all of the families (but especially for Leonida Wanyama and her husband Peter), educating their children is a top priority, but the schools continually threaten to expel their children for lack of payment. The fact that the school fees are due at the time of year when maize prices are at their lowest does not help.  Malaria is a common affliction (in fact, the place where they live is called Malaria) which weakens the farmers, who need strength and stamina for long days in the fields, digging, plowing, weeding, or harvesting, and their children. The “hunger season” of the title is the wanjala, the time between when last year’s maize runs out and next year’s is harvested, dried, and pounded into flour for the staple meal, ugali. It can last several months, and during this time, days can go by when the families have literally nothing to eat. As an American with a fully-stocked kitchen and money in the bank, I had a hard time imagining what it is like to have no food and no money–to send a children off to school in the morning on an empty stomach (just some tea), to be able to offer that child nothing to eat after s/he has walked several kilometers home for lunch, and perhaps not to have any dinner either. Somehow, they manage to scrounge enough to eat to survive through the wanjala, but in their weakened state the children cannot learn effectively, and the parents struggle to maintain the physical labor necessary to raise the crops and care for the scrawny chickens and cows they may have if they are lucky. One of the families lives under a leaky mud roof; but when they manage to save enough money for corrugated tin, they use it to protect their maize crop; the humans must wait for another day to sleep dry during the “long rains”.

Thurow describes the lives of these families with sympathy and without judgment.  He clearly admires their courage, ambition, and intelligence; they keep their eyes on the prize even as they are slapped down again and again by circumstance. This book should be required reading for those Republican Congressmen and others who begrudge the tiny amount of the federal budget slated to help these people to help themselves, as well as for anyone who does not thoroughly appreciate the many advantages that we city dwellers in the developed world are blessed with.

[In this 2-minute video, one of the farmers profiled in the book, Rasoa Wasike, speaks about what One Acre Fund has meant to her family.]


Posted in Non-fiction | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »