SOME OF MY FAVORITE BOOKS: Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” and Tim O’Brien’s “In the Lake of the Woods”

People often ask me what my favorite book is. I cannot answer that question. In fact, I freeze like a deer in the headlights when forced to think of favorites. There are just too many great books that I love for me to be able to narrow it down to one or two. Furthermore, I am no spring chicken; I have been reading heavily for a long time, so there are many, many from which to choose. Some of them are hidden in the deep recesses of my memory at this point.

In this section of my blog I will write briefly about some of my favorite books as I re-read them or as I think about them again for whatever reason. These are not reviews. Rather, they are my very biased reflections on why I like them and what I find interesting about them.

Toni Morrison and Tim O’Brien are also on my “Classics Club” list of books.  For more information about the Classics Club, see

Here you will find my complete list of books I’ll be blogging about for the Classics Club.

 Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison

Photo by Angela Radulescu

Creative Commons Copyright

Author of "In the Lake of the Woods"
Tim O’Brien

 Photo by Larry D. Moore Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported


“I thought it [the My Lai massacre] was murder, the same thing I think today. It makes me angry that so many people got off, the charges were dropped, people got off on technicalities, only one person was convicted. That was Lieutenant Calley. People who testified that they killed 20 people, they were never prosecuted. What really bugs me is that of all the people who were there, about 150 or so, the American public only remembers Calley’s name. But what about the rest of them? Those people are still among us, all over, maybe even some in Baltimore, what are they telling their wives and children? Are they guarding their secrets, too?” –Tim O’Brien

“If anything I do, in the way of writing novels or whatever. . . isn’t about the village or the community or about you, then it isn’t about anything. I am not interested in indulging myself in some private exercise of my imagination . . . which is to say yes, the work must be political.” –Toni Morrison

 This week I am fortunate in that I am teaching two of my favorite contemporary novels at the same time (in two different classes). Although it is hard for me to pick favorites, I CAN say that Beloved is my favorite contemporary novel about slavery and In the Lake of the Woods is my favorite novel about Vietnam.   The fact that I am teaching these two novels at the same time is random. However, reading them again at the same time has made me realize how many similarities they have.

Beloved was first published in 1987 and won the Pulitzer Prize (justly in my opinion.) She went on to win the Nobel Prize in 1993. Beloved is about a former slave woman named Sethe who is living in the 1870s in Ohio with her daughter Denver. Life is hard for many reasons, one of which is that her house is haunted by her baby daughter. Later that daughter comes to life in the body of a young woman and comes to live with Sethe and Denver. We learn eventually that Beloved is dead because Sethe killed her when she was a toddler by slitting her throat. As horrifying as this act sounds, we learn that Sethe killed out of love, not out of hate. She killed to keep the slave catchers from taking her and her children back into slavery.  She believed that although others may have survived slavery, she could not let her children experience it: “Whites might dirty her all right, but not her best thing, her beautiful , magical best thing—the part of her that was clean. No undreamable dreams about whether the headless, feetless torso hanging in the tree with a sign on it was her husband or Paul A; . . . whether a gang of whites invaded her daughter’s private parts, soiled her daughter’s thighs and threw her daughter out of the wagon” (251).

Sethe’s act of desperation is based on a real historical occurrence. In 1856, Margaret Garner escaped slavery with her husband and seventeen other Kentuckian slaves. They made it to a safe house in Ohio, but they were soon discovered by the slave catchers. When Garner realized they would be taken back into slavery, she cut the throat of her daughter, killing her. She had planned to kill all of her children and then herself, but others intervened before she could do so.

In the novel Beloved, we enter Sethe’s life around 18 years after the killing. The only person left in Sethe’s life is her daughter Denver. Her two sons left home as soon as they could because they could not withstand the anger of the ghost haunting the house. Sethe’s mother-in-law, Baby Suggs has also died.   Slavery is over, at least legally, but the past is still ferociously present. Sethe is literally haunted by her dead baby and is emotionally frozen. She is surviving rather than living. She survives by suppressing her memories of the past—both horrors done to her and the horrors she did to others. The cost of this suppression, however, is a sort of death-in-life. She thinks little and feels less. She has no friends, lovers or joy in her life. Then Paul D enters her life and things start to change.   Gradually, she and he begin to confront their past and the memories they tried so desperately to suppress. It is a long and painful process, but Sethe begins to heal, with the help of others in her life. Amy Denver, the white girl who helps Sethe give birth, says to Sethe, “Anything dead coming back to life hurts.” We readers witness the pain Sethe goes through as she starts to come back to life, but Morrison also helps us to understand how essential it is to confront this painful past in order to get past our demons.

This confrontation rings true not only for the fictional character Sethe, but also for our nation as a whole. We in the United States, like Sethe, are haunted by our history of slavery. Legally, slavery may be abolished, but its legacy is a long way from being over. Too many people want to try to minimize the past or to ignore its continuing impact. We Americans are not good at remembering our past, especially the painful parts, but we must. As Morrison’s Beloved suggests, we are still haunted by the repercussions of slavery and always will be until we confront it squarely and speak the unspeakable.

Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods seems on the surface to have little in common with Beloved. His novel is about a character, John Wade, who has come back home to the United States after serving in Viet Nam. After working hard for years—graduating from law school, serving his state in minor political roles—he is poised to be elected as a United States Senator when it all falls apart. He and his wife Kathy seclude themselves in a cabin on the Lake of the Woods in northern Minnesota to recover from his humiliating political defeat. But then Kathy mysteriously disappears. The ostensible point of the novel is to investigate what happened to Kathy: did she get lost in the lake and die? Did she run away from John? Did John kill her?

As we read further in the novel, however, we discover intriguing similarities between In the Lake of the Woods and Beloved. Both narratives are structured around a historical trauma at their centers, traumas that the main characters try to forget. Sethe’s trauma was the murder of her own child specifically, and slavery more generally. Wade’s trauma was his participation in the massacre at My Lai specifically, and American involvement in Viet Nam more generally. Just as we do not learn the truth about Sethe’s past until well into the middle of the novel, we do not discover Wade’s involvement in My Lai until we are almost halfway done. And just as Morrison’s novel emphasizes the need for the nation to confront our past of slavery, so too does O’Brien’s novel compel readers to think about the repercussions of our history, in this case, our military invention in Vietnam.

The novels share a narrative structure that might be described as a spiral, with the outside layers focusing on mundane details of life, but gradually turning in to get closer and closer to the traumatic center of the stories. The novels also share the same psychological insights about the dangers of repressing traumatic memories. Both Sethe and John Wade try to move on with their lives by forgetting, by “beating back the past,” to quote from Morrison. The results of this repressing are disastrous for the long-term. Sethe is not only haunted by the ghost of her dead baby, she is eventually devoured by her and would not have survived if her other daughter Denver did not intervene and get help from the community.   John Wade can put on a good show in front of strangers: he is a magician as well as a politician. But eventually the truth about My Lai comes out and his career is over. More disturbing than his damaged career, however, is his damaged psyche. Readers discover as they read the book that the effort Wade has put into keeping his memories buried have contributed to his becoming seriously emotionally disturbed. He is possibly so disturbed that he may have killed the wife that he loves voraciously.

The theme of voracious love is something else these two works share. Even before John Wade is sent to Vietnam, his heart has been wounded. His need for love is so bottomless that nobody, nothing could ever fulfill it. He has a black hole in place of his heart. In Vietnam he once saw two snakes “eating the other’s tail, a bizarre circle of appetites that brought the heads closer and closer until one of the men in Charlie Company used a machete to end it” (61). He writes home to Kathy that this image of two snakes eating each other is how he envisions their love. “That’s how our love feels. . . like we’re swallowing each other up, except in a good way. . . and I can’t wait to get home and see what would’ve happened if those two dumbass snakes finally ate each other’s heads” (61).

Similarly, in Beloved, Morrison describes the relationship between the incarnated child Beloved and Sethe as one in which the love for each other is insatiable. Sethe is so consumed with guilt that she allows Beloved to take everything from her without protest: “The bigger Beloved got, the smaller Sethe became; the brighter Beloved’s eyes, the more those eyes that never used to look away became slits of sleeplessness.. . Sethe sat in the chair licking her lips like a chastised child while Beloved at up her life, took it, swelled up with it, grew taller on it. And the older woman yielded it up without a murmur” (250). Sethe lets herself be devoured by her child just as Kathy lets herself be devoured by John.   In neither case is the outcome good.

I could go on (and on and on) about the similarities and differences between these two novels. I will end, though, by strongly recommending both of them (even though neither writer really needs help from me by this point in their careers). Both of these novels are powerful explorations of the effects of trauma on both individuals and nations. Both of them remind us that while it may be tempting to repress and deny our past atrocities, the long-term consequences of doing so are devastating.


Works Cited

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Plume Contemporary Fiction, 1988

O’Brien, Tim. In the Lake of the Woods. New York: Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin, 1994.


This posting is

“Unwashed Female Flesh”: Caring for the Poor in “Cutting for Stone” and “Call the Midwives”


Picture taken from



cutting for stone

picture taken from

“He invited me to a world that wasn’t secret, but it was well hidden. You needed a guide.   You had to know what to look for, but also HOW to look. You had to exert yourself to see this world. But if you did, if you had that kind of curiosity, if you had an innate interest in the welfare of your fellow human beings, and if you went through that door, a strange thing happened: you left your petty troubles on the threshold. It could be addictive” (264). Abraham Verghese, Cutting for Stone


Marion Praise Stone, the protagonist of Abraham Verghese’s sprawling novel Cutting for Stone, writes the above words in reference to Ghosh, an Indian doctor who practices in Ethiopia. Ghosh not only raised Marion, but also opened the door to his life-long fascination with medicine.   These words can also be applied to the effect this novel had on me. Verghese invited me into the well-hidden world of a mission hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and I became addicted. The same thing happened when I read Jennifer Worth’s Call the Midwives, her memoir of working as a midwife in the East End of London in the late 1950s. (The PBS series of the same name is based on Worth’s memoir.) Reading Verghese and Worth’s narrative accounts of treating the poor transported me happily, if temporarily, to the streets of the East Side of London and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to witness the everyday miracles of healing ministry.

I have watched doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals heal the sick on “Grey’s Anatomy,” “House,” “ER,” “Doc Martin,” “Scrubs,” “MASH,” and “Nurse Jackie, ” to name just a few. Not once did any of them entice me to enter the medical field, or even to take a particular interest in medicine.   Perhaps I read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at too early an age and was emotionally scarred by battle-axe Nurse Ratched. Or maybe it was the soap operas of my youth, in which nurses seemed more interested in the doctors than in the patients, while the doctors seemed more interested in their careers and their personal lives. In any case, television and fictional works about doctors and nurses have never particularly interested me. This has more to do with me than with the works. I am simply intellectually and temperamentally unsuited for a career in health care.

For this reason, my obsessive interested in Cutting for Stone and Call the Midwives took me by surprise. I’m not sure, really, why I responded so deeply to these works, but I think it has something to do with the way the heroes and heroines of these works practiced medicine: not as competent yet detached professionals, but as healers following a spiritual calling.

Cutting for Stone is the best-selling novel by Abraham Verghese, an Indian medical doctor who grew up in Ethiopia and now practices medicine in the United States.   His novel is about twin sons Marion and Shiva who, like him, are were raised in Ethiopia by Indian parents. (In the case of Marion and Shiva, the people who raised them were not their biological parents.) The novel is about many things, including family bonds, Ethiopian history, and erotic love. However, I think what I found most compelling is Verghese’s portrayal of the characters who work at Missing Hospital in Addis Ababa.   (The actual name of the hospital is “Mission,” but the word “mission” “on the Ethiopian tongue came out with a hiss so it sounded like Missing. ) There are few doctors and nurses at Missing Hospital, but they are all fiercely devoted to their calling (as opposed to rising in their careers.) Sister Mary Joseph Praise says this, for example, about Dr. Thomas Stone:

Stone, risen like Lazarus, then brought his entire being into understanding the fever. . . His fierce passion had been a revelation to her. At the medical college hospital in Madras where she trained as a nurse, the civil surgeons (who at the time were mostly Englishmen) had floated around serene and removed from the patients, with the assistant civil surgeons and junior and senior house surgeons (who were all Indian) trailing behind like ducklings. At times it seemed to her they were so focused on disease that patients and suffering were incidental to their work. Thomas Stone was different.” (37)

In an interview with Meenakshi Kumar in the The Hindu newspaper, Verghese refers to himself as an “old-fashioned” practitioner who practices “bed-side medicine.” From what I can tell, “bed-side medicine” means treating the patient as a whole person, not just a set of organs about which the doctor has special knowledge.    We see this “bed-side” attitude in all of the Ethiopian practitioners in Cutting for Stone. However, when the setting moves to the medically advanced United States, it seems that personal attention is less common.   In the United States, one distraught mother, for example, complains about the fact that her son died in surgery. She understands that the doctors cannot always save people. What upsets her, though, is the way these doctors treated her son like a body rather than a person.   She cries out in distress that, “The fact that people were attentive to his body does not compensate for their ignoring his being” (489).

Although the medical staff at Missing Hospital is a mixed band of expatriates who have no historic roots in Ethiopia, they become deeply, even spiritually, rooted in the community of Addis Ababas and do pioneering medical work for the desperately poor people who live there. The success of this mission hospital is due in large part to the nun who runs the place. Everybody refers to her as “Matron,” even herself, and she allowed herself at one point to feel pride at “the resourcefulness she’d discovered that allowed her to make a cozy hospital—an East African Eden, as she thought of it—grow out of disorganized jumble of rudimentary buildings; and the core group of doctors whom she’d recruited and who by long association had evolved into her Cherished Own.” (117) Matron and her staff work tirelessly to relieve the suffering of the poor. As Matron explains it to an American donor who disapproves of the Ethiopian version of Christianity: “God will judge us, Mr. Harris . . . by what we did to relieve the suffering of our fellow human beings. I don’t think God cares what doctrine we embrace.” (187)

The order of nuns described in Call the Midwives was equally resourceful in bringing much-needed care to a community of the poor. We learn from Jennifer Worth that up through the nineteenth century, most poor women in England could not afford a doctor to delivery their babies. Furthermore, no woman had any specialist obstetric care during pregnancy because such a field did not exist. She explains that “The first time a woman would see a doctor or midwife was when she went into labour. Therefore, death and disaster, either for mother or child, or both, were commonplace. Such tragedies were looked upon as the will of God, whereas, in fact, they were the inevitable result of neglect and ignorance” (82).

Women before the 20th century relied on untrained “handywomen” to deliver their babies and suffered a maternal mortality rate of around 35-40 percent. The Midwives of St. Raymund Nonnatus started to change this by advocating legislation that required proper training and control of the work of midwives. After a long struggle, the first Midwives Act was passed in 1902 and the Royal College of Midwives was born. The St. Raymund midwives worked in the slums of London among the poorest of the poor and were for a long time the only reliable midwives working there. Worth notes that

they labored tirelessly through epidemics of cholera, typhoid, polio and tuberculosis. In the early twentieth century, they worked through two world wars. In the 1940s, they remained in London and endured the Blitz with its intensive bombing of the docks. They delivered babies in air-raid shelters, dugouts, church crypts and underground stations. This was the tireless, selfless work to which they had pledged their lives, and they were known, respected and admired throughout the Docklands by the people who lived there. Everyone spoke of them with sincere love. (19)

Both Cutting for Stone and Call the Midwives depict healers who dedicate their lives to making others feel better. This is not to suggest, however, that the portraits of working with the suffering poor are all saccharine sweet.   Far from it. Along with the many scenes of mothers who are thrilled to have delivered a healthy baby come stories of death and other types of trauma. Not only do the practitioners and readers have to deal with trauma, but we are also exposed to simple disgust at human bodies and behaviors. Worth devotes a significant amount of print to detail the revulsion she often felt, especially at first—not only to the women’s bodies, but sometimes to the women themselves.

“What really got me, I think, was the sheer concentration of unwashed female flesh, the pulsating warmth and humidity, the endless chatter, and above all the smell. However much I bathed and changed afterwards, it was always a couple of days before I could get rid of the nauseating smells of vaginal discharge, urine, stale sweat, unwashed clothes. It all mingled into a hot, clinging vapour that penetrated my clothes, hair, skin—everything.” (71)

Worth also confesses to feeling occasional contempt for the “slatterns” and abusive mothers she meets. She also learns to overcome this contempt and to develop a profound respect for the toughness of the women with whom she works.

In the end, I think what draws me most to these works are the characters—the nuns, midwives, doctors and nurses–themselves. They seem to be touched by a radiant quality that transcends mere competence. I suspect is it no coincidence that both works center around health care run by nuns. The quality that stands out from these books is ultimately a spiritual one. Jennifer Worth noticed this quality of the nuns she worked with. She noticed how happy and relaxed she felt around Sister Julienne in particular:

“The impact Sister Julienne made upon me—and, I discovered, most people—was out of all proportion to her words or her appearance. She was not imposing or commanding, nor arresting in any way. She was not even particularly clever. But something radiated from her and, ponder as I might, I could not understand it. It did not occur to me at that time that her radiance had a spiritual dimension, owing nothing to the values of the temporal world.”

Verghese also weaves into his novel the interrelatedness of the material world and the spiritual world in his works. “I felt a great peace, a sense that coming to this spot had completed the circuit, and now a blocked current would flow and I could rest. If “ecstasy” meant the sudden intrusion of the sacred into the ordinary, then it had just happened to me” (602).

I suspect it is the spiritual dimension of these works is, at least in part, what drew me into them so deeply. I am grateful to Veghese and Worth for serving me as a guide–however briefly–to this world and teaching me “how to look” differently at the world of medicine.

[The interview with Meenakshi Kumar cited above can be found here: ]

Thinking of visiting Palestine and Israel?

I visited Palestine and Israel two years ago and agree with what this blogger says. It’s a great place to visit!

Palestine 101

Are you thinking of going away? Here are just a few reasons why your next trip should be to Palestine/Israel. Although far from an exhaustive list, these ideas will get you started.

1. Discover the beauty of the land

Though it remains a secret, The Middle East is spectacular. You get a little bit of everything, from desert lands to olive farms. Located on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, it truly is a breathtaking landscape.


2. Visit the holy land for Christians, Jews, Muslims and Bahais

These religious sites are a part of human history and the lands are a mosaic of them all. Take a tour of Jericho, Hebron, Jerusalem and Bethlehem just to name a few.


3. Discover quite possibly the richest culture known to man

The Arabic culture is one that dates back thousands of years. It is distinct in all its facets from traditional foods like Musakhan to folklore dances like the…

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Unconscious Couplets: Poetry for the Restuvus

As you probably know, Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin have decided to call it quits. We, the little people, might have “break-ups” and “divorces,” but Gwyneth is above all that. She and Chris Martin are engaging instead in “conscious uncoupling.”

Here’s what she said in her GOOP of March 25:

Conscious Uncoupling

It is with hearts full of sadness that we have decided to separate. We have been working hard for well over a year, some of it together, some of it separated, to see what might have been possible between us, and we have come to the conclusion that while we love each other very much we will remain separate. We are, however, and always will be a family, and in many ways we are closer than we have ever been. We are parents first and foremost, to two incredibly wonderful children and we ask for their and our space and privacy to be respected at this difficult time. We have always conducted our relationship privately, and we hope that as we consciously uncouple and coparent, we will be able to continue in the same manner.

Gwyneth & Chris


 Thanks, Gwyneth, for once again showing the rest of us how Things Should Be Done!

I am so inspired by Gwyneth and Chris’s example of conscious uncoupling that I have invented a new form of poetry in their honor.

The form is called “unconscious couplets.” This means that the couplets have to rhyme, but they are otherwise so incoherent that they must have been written while passed out in a drunken stupor.

Here is an example of this cutting edge form:

If I were a poet who wrote,
I’d insert a whole bunch of quotes
From pop culture icons like Gwyneth,
Whose sayings make my head spinneth.


I know what you’re thinking. This is such a great form of poetry that Gwyneth should not be the only one honored by it. That is why I have written some more verses to honor the other GREATS whom we all admire.


For Miley Cyrus

We old folks cringe when we see Miley Cyrus,
and write her letters of protest on our papyrus.
We tell her how dreadful it is that she twerks,
While she counts her dollars and tells us we’re jerks.



For Justin Bieber

The mobs say that Bieber should be deported
Because of the drugs that he probably snorted.
And now he’s driving a bright red Bugatti,
Which just makes him look even more snotty



For Snooki, who recently announced that she is expecting her second child:

My sources tell me that Snooki
Has been successful at making nookie.
She says that now she is preggers,
She can no longer drink beer from keggers.



Stay tuned for more unconscious couplets to come!

Would You Like Tears With Your Order? (Random Stuff I’ve Learned by Reading Too Many Novels: Professional Mourners)


The character Toloki is a Professional Mourner
The character Toloki is a Professional Mourner


Toloki is the main character in South African writer Zakes Mda’s first novel, Ways of Dying. Toloki comes from a small village, but lives in Johannesburg. He goes to a lot of funerals. This is not because he knows so many people who have died, but because he is a Professional Mourner. He is hired by friends or family members of the deceased to mourn ostentatiously at their loved one’s funeral.

Mda writes, “Normally when he is invited to mourn by the owners of a corpse, he sits very conspicuously on the mound that will ultimately fill the grave. . . . and shares his sorrow with the world. The appreciative family of the deceased pays him any amount it can. One day he would like to have a fixed rate of fees for different levels of mourning, as in other professions. Doctors have different fees for different illnesses. Lawyers charge fees which vary according to the gravity of the case. And certainly these professionals don’t accept just any amount the client feels like giving them. But for the time being he will accept anything he is given, because the people are not yet used to the concept of a Professional Mourner. It is a fairly new concept, and he is still the only practitioner. He would be willing to train other people though, so that when he dies the tradition will continue. Then he will live in the books of history as the founder of a noble profession” (15).

Just as other professionals perform better on some days than on others, so too does Toloki. When he goes all out, he makes “moaning sounds of agony that were so harrowing that they affected all those who were in earshot, filling their eyes with tears. When the Nurse spoke, he excelled himself by punctuating each painful segment of her speech with an excruciating groan that sent the relatives into a frenzy of wailing.”

I have been known to send people into a frenzy of wailing myself—by teaching grammar—so I wanted to learn more about this profession. Was this profession purely a product of Zakes Mda’s imagination? I did some research to answer that question. (By “research,” of course, I mean “typing the phrase ‘professional mourner’ into google.”)

I learned that Professional Mourning is a practice dating back thousands of years in Mediterranean and Near Eastern cultures, as well as many other parts of the world. Professional mourners are called “moirologists.” They are mentioned in the Bible and early works of literature.

While the practice of moirology may not be as well-known as it once was, it still exists today. For example, in Essex, England there is a service called “Rent a Mourner.” They claim on their website that, “Rent a mourner can supply professional, discreet people to attend funerals and wakes. If you simply need to increase visitor numbers or introduce new faces, then we can help.”   The price of this service is about 45 pounds per mourner for a two-hour period. If you are interested in their service, check out their website:

Lest you American readers feel left out, fret not.  We in the United States have our own moirologists from which to choose. For example, the Golden Gate Funeral Home in Dallas provides professional mourners. This video clip shows examples of people auditioning for this job.  Clearly, not everybody is cut out for this job; it takes talent.

It looks like Toloki has some competition. May the best wailer win.

Go Take a Hike, Part II (West Bank)


“How unaware many trekkers around the world are of what a luxury it is to be able to walk in the land they love without anger, fear or insecurity, just to be able to walk without political arguments running obsessively through their heads, without the fear of losing what they’ve come to love, without the anxiety that they will be deprived of the right to enjoy it. Simply to walk and savor what nature has to offer, as I was once able to do.” (Raja Shehadah, 40)

This entry is a postscript to my previous entry on hiking in Palestine. Today I started reading Raja Shehadah’s Palestinian Walks: Forays into a Vanishing Landscape.  He writes not only about his own experiences walking in the hills near Ramallah, but also of what previous Western travelers have written about the region. He writes:

“Palestine has been one of the countries most visited by pilgrims and travelers over the ages. The accounts I have read do not describe a land familiar to me but rather a land of these travelers’ imaginations. Palestine has been constantly reinvented, with devastating consequences to its original inhabitants. Whether it was the cartographers preparing maps or travelers describing the landscape in the extensive travel literature, what mattered was not the land and its inhabitants as they actually were, but the confirmation of the viewer’s or reader’s religious or political beliefs. I can only hope that this book does not fall within this tradition.

Perhaps the curse of Palestine is its centrality to the West’s historical and biblical imagination. The landscape is thus cut to match the grim events recorded there. Here is how Thackeray describes the hills I have so loved:

Parched mountains, with a grey bleak olive tree trembling here and there; savage ravines and valleys paved with tombstones—a landscape unspeakably ghastly and desolate, meet the eye wherever you wander round about the city. The place seems quite adapted to the events which are recorded in the Hebrew histories. It and they, as it seems to me, can never be regarded without terror. . . ” (11)

Shehadah quotes other writers as well, such as Mark Twain, who describe the region as “desolate and unlovely.”   I was surprised to read this. Were they writing about the same place I visited? Granted, I visited in spring, the best time of the year, but still, the difference in perspective is striking and surely has as much to do with imagination and ideology as it does with observation.

Shehadah’s book serves as a refreshing antidote to these earlier travelers’ descriptions. He writes in a loving, elegiac tone about a landscape and a way of life that endured for centuries but is now rapidly disappearing under Israeli expansion and apartheid policies.



Part of Bedouin Tour in Palestine
Part of Bedouin Tour in Palestine


Land of Oz



Wandering around an unfamiliar neighborhood is one of my favorite parts of traveling. I love to poke around in the shops, fortify myself at the local cafes, and gawp at the passersby.   Last Sunday, I spent the afternoon meandering around the Ben Yehuda Street area of downtown Jerusalem.   Most of this street is an open-air pedestrian mall lined with shops, restaurants, coffee shops and ice cream vendors.   This area does not contain much in the way of major tourist attractions, but the atmosphere was pleasant, and my guidebook assured me I would “rub shoulders with the locals” (rather than being stampeded by herds of pilgrims.)

It sounded like a perfect place to spend a leisurely afternoon. I did enjoy it. However, I was not getting my usual explorer’s high. I was tired that day and feeling a little lonely. I explored some of the shops, but I couldn’t afford to buy anything I liked, and the shopkeepers seemed irritated by my “look, but don’t buy” resolve. Even a café latte/gelato treat didn’t save me from my plummeting spirits.

After a few hours of wandering, I was about to call it a day and go back to my hotel, when suddenly I saw this sign.


My ears perked up and my tail started wagging–or at least things would have happened if I had been a dog.   Food, caffeine and books: these are a few of my favorite things. I needed to check out this place! Tmol Shilshom was no Barnes and Noble behemoth, though, straddling an entire city block.   This gem was tucked away in a corner and not easy to find.   Following the arrow on the sign meant I had to first walk through this slightly creepy alley:


No creepy alley would keep me from my café/bookstore, though, so I plodded onward. On the other side of the alley, though, I still didn’t see anything looking like a bookstore. I walked on for awhile and saw a door that opened into a building. When I looked inside, a man came to the door and asked if he could help me. I asked if this were a café/bookstore, and he said, “No, this is a synagogue.”   Oops. The man did point me in the direction of the promised land, though. It was over here:


I discovered it by going up those stairs, taking a left, and then going up another flight of stairs.

Finally, Tmol Shilshom. For me, finding this place was like the moment in the Wizard of Oz when the movie changes from black-and-white to color. My spirits soared—especially when I noted they served beer and wine as well as food, coffee and books. Could the Emerald City be any better?

This restaurant/café/bookstore is located in a 130 year old building. It occupies what used to be two separate apartments, separated by an outdoor terrace, which now serves as an outdoor café.   The building was originally used for residential apartments. Later, it was turned into a tailor’s shop and later still, into commercial space. But now it is a restaurant/café/bookstore catering to bookish, intellectual, artistic writer types. (They often use the space for book launches and readings.) The atmosphere is warm and cozy. The ceilings are of arched stone, the furniture of dark wood, and the numerous alcoves are filled with books in Hebrew and English. (I thought about taking pictures, but I didn’t want to look like a total dork.)

Before sitting down, I of course first needed to check out the books. It didn’t take me too long before my book radar led me to a chunky memoir by Amos Oz called A Tale of Love and Darkness. I had never read Oz, but I had heard of him—vaguely. Apparently, he is Israel’s most famous writer. I bought the book, sat down at a table, ordered wine and vegetable couscous, and was immediately captivated by his prose, which is both funny and sad at the same time. He writes about growing up in Jerusalem in the 40s and 50s; his prose evokes the early days of Israel so strongly that I was not only transported back to an earlier time, I felt the need to wash my hands with antibacterial soap. Here is an example of his prose:

“My Grandmother Shlomit arrived in Jerusalem straight from Vilna one hot summer’s day in 1933, took one startled look at the sweaty markets, the colourful stalls, the swarming sidestreets full of the cries of hawkers, the braying of donkeys, the bleating of goats, the squawks of pullets hung up with their legs tied together, and blood dripping from the necks of slaughtered chickens, she saw the shoulders and arms of middle-eastern men and the strident colors of the fruit and vegetables, she saw the hills all around and the rocky slopes, and immediately pronounced her final verdict: “The Levant is full of germs.””

The explorer’s high that had eluded me all afternoon had returned. I got my “hit,” and settled in for a rapturous evening with white wine and Oz.

Best Contemporary African Books


Best Contemporary African Books


I just came across this link from Guardian recommending these ten contemporary African books.  I now feel the need to take a couple of months off of work so I can read them.

(Not sure how well that will go over with my bosses.)

If anybody has read any of them, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Banya Time

banya painting

This is not me.

I was lying naked on a bench. The room was steamy hot, approaching 200 degrees. A stranger was beating me with a venik, while keeping up a steady stream of conversation in a language I didn’t understand.

“You seem tense,” said this stranger (according to my translator).

While this may seem like a scene of torture, in fact I was just taking a bath—Russian style. I was staying at Kitezh, an intentional community in rural Russia designed to adopt and raise orphans. I was the co-leader of a group of ten university students on a study abroad trip. The community was tiny and had little money. The founders intentionally built the community to reflect traditional Russian customs. One of these customs was the banya (bath house-plus-sauna).

When we arrived at Kitezh, we were nervous to discover that the cabin-style homes we stayed in did not have showers or bathtubs. If we wanted to clean ourselves, the only choice was to go to the banya, which only operated twice a week.

The banya was a separate wooden building, somewhat like a log cabin.   Upon first entering the banya, we saw the entry room where we were instructed to disrobe completely and assemble our bathing supplies. The banyas were sex segregated, but still, we Americans were extremely uncomfortable cavorting naked with each other. We tried to cover ourselves with our towels as best we could. The Russian women found our modesty puzzling and amusing. They seemed completely unfazed by communal nakedness.

The next room was the largest—the actual bathing room. There was no running water, but there was a large barrel of very hot water and a large barrel of cold water.   We all had pails and scooped up the right amount of hot and cold water with which to bath ourselves and wash our hair. While I was scrubbing myself, a Russian woman came up to me and gently washed my back for me and murmured soothing words. For those of you with a prurient mind, please know that there was nothing remotely sexual about this scene.   Helping each other bathe was a common custom. I felt nurtured, not seduced. I was quite near-sighted at this time (before my Lasik surgery), so I could not see much of anything—just a steamy, hazy, pleasant fuzz. It looked very much like this Russian painting.

MAC_0411a_ 145

 After the first round of bathing, I was led to the sauna room. It was very steamy and very hot. I was instructed to lie down so that I could get a massage.   A lovely, maternal woman named Natasha was my masseuse. Before the actual massage, however, Natasha first took a fragrant bundle of leafy birch tree trigs and beat me lightly with it. This bundle is called venik, and is an important part of the Russian bathing ritual. Apparently the beating warms up the body and improves circulation. The twigs have been soaked in scented water, so what I felt and heard was a “swishing” sound. It did not hurt; rather it felt invigorating.


After the beating, Natasha gave me a brisk massage, all the while murmuring in Russian. I did not know what she was saying, but the way she talked was very soothing and maternal.

After the massage, I was taken back into the main bathing room. I was very hot, so hot it was difficult to breathe.   After I entered the main room, somebody took a pain of cold water and splashed it all over me. I literally screamed from the shock, but it definitely woke me from my stupor. If it had been winter, we might have gone outside and jumped into the snow instead.

I thought my banya ritual was done at that point, but I was wrong. The final, and most important, part of the ritual was to retire to the tea room (one big table with benches all around it). There, the women sat for a long time (sometimes hours) drinking tea and talking. This was all great, except that everybody was still stark naked.

It would be fair to say I felt a little awkward.  Just a little.

But again, the Russians thought chatting with each other while naked was the most natural thing in the world. They could not understand our weird American hang-ups.

At the end of this whole experience, I was certainly clean. Not only that, but I do believe the experience knocked those toxins right out of me.   One day I started the process feeling like I had a cold coming on. Afterwards, I felt wiped out for a while, but after a few hours, the cold was completely gone.

It has been several years since I’ve been in a banya, and I really miss it. Sure, I appreciate my daily quick—and private—shower. But I miss the banya ritual. In particular, I miss the feeling of being part of a community that takes the time to care for each other.

Random Stuff I’ve Learned by Reading Too Many Novels: Khat



I am not a drug fiend. However, I consider myself to be well-informed about illicit drugs. I have, after all, avidly watched the TV shows “Breaking Bad” (meth) and “Weeds” (marijuana). Not only that, but I saw the episode of “Mad Men” in which Roger Sterling and his wife tried LSD. Heck, let’s be honest. I’ve even read Beat poetry.

Therefore, I was surprised when I read the novel Knots by Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah, described by one New York Times reviewer as “the graying, balding sage of Somali letters.” This novel features a female protagonist named Cambara who returns to her native Somalia after almost 20 years of exile in Toronto.

The surprising (to me) part of this novel was its depiction of wide-spread use in Somalia of the stimulant drug khat. I had never heard of this drug before, so I was curious to learn more about it.   According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse,

“Khat (pronounced “cot”) is a stimulant drug derived from a shrub (Catha edulis) that is native to East Africa and southern Arabia. The khat plant itself is not scheduled under the Controlled Substances Act; however, because one of the mind-altering chemicals found in it, cathinone, is a Schedule I drug (a controlled substance with no recognized therapeutic use), the Federal Government considers Khat use illegal.”

Khat’s stimulating effects, from what I gather, fall somewhere between caffeine and cocaine. It produces feelings of euphoria, elation, alertness, and arousal.

It has been a few years since I’ve read Knots, but from what I remember, most of the men in the novel spent most of their time sitting around chewing khat–that is, when they weren’t busy shooting each other. It was left to the women to do most the work. I recall that many of the male characters were red-eyed and irritable because of their khat chewing and tendency to shoot each other. It was not a pretty picture.

But apparently, it is a very common picture. The National Institute on Drug abuse notes the following:

“It is estimated that as many as 10 million people worldwide chew khat. It is commonly found in the southwestern part of the Arabian Peninsula and in East Africa, where it has been used for centuries as part of an established cultural tradition. In one large study in Yemen, 82 percent of men and 43 percent of women reported at least one lifetime episode of khat use. Its current use among particular migrant communities in the United States and in Europe has caused concern among policymakers and health care professionals. No reliable estimates of prevalence in the United States exist.”

Ten million khat chewers and not a single American TV show about it! At least, none that I am aware of.

I am currently reading Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, which reminded me of the importance of khat in East Africa. In this novel, the character Hemlatha is flying from India to Ethiopia. The plane she is on descends, unscheduled, into Djibouti in order to pick up a load of khat. According to Hemlatha in Cutting for Stone,

“That lucrative khat trade route [grown in Ethiopia and exported to Djibouti and then Aden] was responsible for the birth of Ethiopian Airlines. She overheard that some problem with the railway and road transport, as well as the urgent need for large quantities of khat for a wedding, prompted this reverse export and the unscheduled stop. Khat had to be chewed within a day or so of its harvest, or else it lost its potency. Hema pictured the Somali, Yemeni, and Sudanese merchants in the tiny souks that anchored every street and byway, and the owners of the bigger shops of the Merkato in Addis Ababa, eyeing their Tissot watches, snapping at their shop boys as they waited for his shipment.”

In other words, khat is big business.

I think a new TV show is in order. I’m thinking it could focus on a hapless Minnesota English professor. Tired of eking out a living by grading papers, said professor decides to supplement her meager income by growing khat in her backyard and selling it to the East African immigrants.

What do you think? Do I have a hit?

Works Cited

 Farah, Nuruddin. Knots. New York: Penguin, 2008.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Drug Facts: Khat.” <>

Verghese, Abraham. Cutting for Stone. New York: Vintage, 2010.