I’m starting a new meme. (Is that the proper word–“meme”? ) Occasionally, I will post a passage from book I’m reading that made me smile, for whatever reason. I hope you can join me!
I have been trying to learn Arabic over the past few years. I have found it exceedingly difficult, and very slow-going. I have accepted that I deserve to wear the Arabic Dunce Cap whenever I am in a room with other Arabic learners.
For that reason, this passage in Elaine Rippey Imady’s Road to Damascus made me smile. Imady moved to Damascus in the early 1960s to be with her Syrian husband and family. This is what she said about learning Arabic:
“Without doubt, learning Arab was the hardest thing I have ever done. With Arabic, you face a completely unfamiliar alphabet containing at least eight letters with sounds that don’t exist in English. In addition, you read Arabic from right to left–backwards for any Westerner. Furthermore, every one of the twenty-eight letters is written three different way depending on whether it is the first letter of a word, the last letter or in the middle of the word. Even worse, modern Arabic is written without the teshkeel, that is, without the short vowels and grammatical endings of the words. You must know enough Arabic to supply them yourself.” (72)
Oh, that’s just for starters! Whereas in English, there are two choices for conjugating verbs: either you add an “s” to a root, or you don’t: WALK or WALKS. In Arabic, there are at least 13 different conjugation forms (I think?)
I could go on, but I won’t. My point is, it was nice to have my struggle validated by Imady.
For this week’s “Deal Me In” short story challenge, I picked the 2 of Diamonds, which is George Saunders’ story “The Semplica Girl Diaries.” This story is part of Saunders’ collection Tenth of December. For more information about the “Deal Me In” challenge, click here. For my full list of “Deal Me In” stories, click here.
My first reaction to reading “The Semplica Girl Diaries” was “wow!” My second reaction was “wow!”
I had never read Saunders up until now, but I’d been hearing more and more about him. Now I understand why he is getting so much attention. I don’t recall reading anybody quite like him before. The best comparison I can think of is Franz Kafka meets Raymond Carver; he combines the true horror of postmodernity with its utter banality. Was it Hannah Arendt who wrote about the banality of evil? George Saunders illustrates it in his stories.
The “Semplica Girl Diaries” is written as a diary of a man who wishes to record for posterity “how life really was/is now.” Much of what he writes about concerns the ordinary trials and tribulations of middle-class families who wish they had more money.
It is only in passing, as an aside, that he first mention the SG girls. He and his family are visiting a wealthy family’s home, and he sees “on sweeping lawn, largest SG arrangement ever seen, all in white, white smocks blowing in breeze” (114). At this point, the narrator does not explain what the SGs are, and I thought maybe they were some kind of flower arrangement (?).
As the story unfolds, we gradually start to understand what SG girls are. They are girls/young women from poor countries who are displayed in yards of Americans for their decorative effect. They are connected together by a microline through their brains. Then the microline is hoisted up three feet off the ground so that the girls are all hanging in the air, rather like laundry from a clothes line.
Here’s a description from the narrator who is proud of buying some SGs to show the neighbors how affluent he is:
We step out. SGs up now, approx. three feet off ground, smiling, swaying in slight breeze. Order, left to right: Tami (Laos), Gwen (Moldova), Lisa (Somalia), Betty (Phillippines). Effect amazing. Having so often seen similar configuration in yards of others more affluent, makes own yard seem suddenly affluent, you feel different about self, as if at last you are in step with peers and time in which living.
Pond great. Roses great. Path, hot tub great. (133)
As if hanging up girls on a microline for aesthetic effect isn’t brutal enough, the real horror of this story derives from the utterly casual way affluent Americans regard the SG girls. These girls are just yard ornaments, barely worthy of notice, much less concern.
I find this story a powerful illustration of the way in which the wealthy classes of the world can exploit poorer people cruelly, without even blinking an eye. Obviously, this story is fiction and a bit outlandish. Only a bit, though.
If you don’t think humans are capable of this sort of cruelty to young women, then you should read Half the Sky, which I discussed here.
Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:
• Grab your current read
• Open to a random page
• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
• Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!
Here’s my teaser:
“Weddings here [in Syria] come in two stages, the kitab when the contract which legalizes the marriage is signed and the irs which is an optional party to celebrate the actual wedding night. Unlike a Christian wedding, there are now vows and a wedding is not a religious ceremony.”
This is from Road to Damascus by Elaine Rippey Imady. This book is the memoir of an American woman who married a Muslim from Syria in the 1950s and moved to Damascus with him. They lived happily ever after. Seriously!
Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.”
It took me longer than expected to read Half the Sky, not because it was badly written or uninteresting. It took me a long time because the content made me sick, and I needed to set the book aside periodically to regain my composure.
It has taken me awhile to get around to blogging about the book for the same reason. Even now, I feel nauseated as I write this post. I am also afraid I will not be able to write for very long without descending into an incoherent howl of rage.
For these reasons, my post will be shorter than it probably should be. The short version of this post is this: READ THIS BOOK and then TAKE ACTION. (At the end of the book, the authors provide the readers with specific, easy things we can do to help.)
The subject of Half the Sky is the oppression of women around the world. Kristof and WuDunn, a husband-and-wife journalist team, call the oppression of women (especially poor, uneducated women) “the central moral challenge” of our time, and rightly so.
In their book they focus on a few major topics: the sexual slave trade, female genital mutilation, honor killings, rape, and preventable maternal mortality. I thought I was reasonably well-educated about the plight of women in the world today, and I had heard about the existence of all of these horrors. However, I had no idea how wide-spread these abuses of women were.
Half the Sky is full of statistics. Here are few examples:
“Our own estimate is that there are 3 million women and girls (and a very small number of boys) worldwide who can be fairly termed enslaved in the sex trade” (10).
“Approximately once every ten seconds, a girl somewhere in the world is pinned down. Her legs are pulled apart, and a local woman with no medical training pulls out a knife or razor blade and slices off some or all of the girl’s genitals. In most cases, there is no anesthetic.” (221)
A major study by the World Health Organization found that in most countries, between 30 percent and 60 percent of women had experienced physical or sexual violence by a husband or boyfriend. “Violence against women by an intimate partner is a major contributor to the ill health of women,” said the former director-general of WHO, Lee Jong-wook. (61)
Most people, though, do not respond emotionally to statistics. We respond to stories of real people, and so that is what Kristoff and WuDunn focus on their book. They get to know women from around the world who have endured horrific abuses, and they share their stories with us.
The positive message from this book, and it is a major one, is that these abuses of women are not inevitable. The women interviewed by Kristof and WuDunn are not just victims; they are survivors who have gone on to achieve some success in their lives.
How did these success stories happen? I am oversimplifying the answer, but basically it is education and microfinance. Women everywhere, of every class, can be victims of oppression, but poor, uneducated ones are the most vulnerable. This exchange between Kristof and an Indian policeman monitoring the border between India and Nepal exemplifies the callous attitude many people have towards poor women, especially when they are uneducated. The Indian officer explained to Kristof that he was looking for terrorists or terror supplies.
“What about trafficked girls?” Nick asked. “Are you keeping an eye out for them? There must be a lot.”
“Oh, a lot. But we don’t worry about them. There’s nothing you can do about them.”
“Well, you could arrest the traffickers. Isn’t trafficking girls as important as pirating DVDs?”
The intelligence officer laughed genially and threw up his hands.
“Prostitution is inevitable.” He chuckled. “There has always been prostitution in every country. And what’s a young man going to do from the time when he turns eighteen until when he gets married at thirty?”
“Well, is the best solution really to kidnap Nepali girls and imprison them in Indian brothels?”
The officer shrugged, unperturbed. “It’s unfortunate,” he agreed. “These girls are sacrificed so that we can have harmony in society. So that good girls can be safe.”
“But many of the Nepali girls being trafficked are good girls, too.”
“Oh, yes, but those are peasant girls. They can’t even read. They’re from the countryside. The good Indian middle-class girls are safe.” (23-24)
Clearly, poor, uneducated women are expendable. One way to help remedy this situation, is to provide poor women with the opportunity to be educated and to have ways to support themselves financially.
Doing this, obviously, takes money, but not that much by western standards. Kristof and WuDunn document many, many cases of women’s lives that are transformed when they are given the opportunity to learn and the opportunity to start small businesses. Sometimes as little as $100 can be enough to start a woman on her own successful business.
At the end of their book, they list some very specific things we readers can do to help ease the sufferings of at least one woman. As they write in their preface:
“We hope to recruit you to join an incipient movement to emancipate women and fight global poverty by unlocking women’s power as economic catalysts. That is the process under way—not a drama of victimization but of empowerment, the kind that transforms bubbly teenage girls from brothel slaves into successful businesswomen.
This is a story of transformation. It is change that is already taking place, and change that can accelerate if you’ll just open your heart and join in.” (xxii)
Last December, I came across an announcement for a “One Book, Many Communities” campaign organized by the group “Librarians and Archivists with Palestine.” The “One Book, Many Communities” plan was for people around the world to read Susan Abulhawa’s novel Mornings in Jenin in January of 2015 and then to organize discussion groups about the book. For more information about this campaign, click here.
I thought this was a great idea and wanted to participate, especially since I already had Mornings in Jenin sitting (unread) on my book shelf. (I had discovered it in an English-language bookstore in Bethlehem, in the West Bank, when I was there in 2012.) The bad news is that I wasn’t on the ball enough to read the book and/or organize any One Book event in January. The good news is that I DID read the book in February, along with one of my book groups, and we discussed it today.
I think we all agreed that the book was a powerful narrative dramatization of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the perspective of one Palestinian family.
For an overview of the novel, here is the blurb provided by the book’s website:
Palestine 1941. In the small village of Ein Hod a father leads a procession of his family and workers through the olive groves. As they move through the trees the green fruits drop onto the orchard floor; the ancient cycle of the seasons providing another bountiful harvest.
Palestine 1948. The Abulheja family are forcibly removed from their ancestral home in Ein Hod and sent to live in a refugee camp in Jenin. Through Amal, the bright granddaughter of the patriarch, we witness the stories of her brothers: one, as stolen boy who becomes an Israeli soldier; the other who is sacrificing everything for the Palestinian cause, will become his enemy.
Amal’s own dramatic story threads its way through six decades of Palestine-Israeli tension, eventually taking her into exile in Pennsylvania in America. Amal’s is a story of love and loss, of childhood, marriage, parenthood, and finally the need to share her history with her daughter, to preserve the greatest love she has. Richly told and full of humanity, Mornings in Jenin forces us to take a fresh look of one of the defining political conflicts of our time. It is an extraordinary debut.
Although the novel focuses on Amal, it is actually the saga of an entire family, including Amal’s parents and siblings. This family, although fictional, is meant to illustrate the history of the Palestinian people as a whole (or at least 20th century history). Abulhawa takes the readers from the 1930s in Palestine, when Amal’s family were peacefully farming the land their family had cultivated for centuries, through the creation of the state of Israel when the entire community was forced away from their village and into the refugee camp of Jenin. The horrors do not end with life in a refugee camp, though. The narrative takes us through the bombings of the 1967 war, life under Israeli occupation, the horrors of the Shatila camp massacres and even the 1983 terrorist attacks in Lebanon. Through all of these events and more, readers cannot help but be moved and horrified by the experiences the Palestinians had to endure—and still do endure.
The mainstream U.S. media, when it reports on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, is almost entirely one-sided. Americans can easily get the impression that Palestinians are all terrorists (for no particular reason except that they are somehow born that way) and Israelis are harmless victims who do nothing except to defend themselves. Of course, there are plenty of nonfiction books available that give a broader perspective, providing much needed historical and political information.
However, not everybody reads these nonfiction books. For people who want to know more about the Palestinian perspective, but are loathe to slog through analytical nonfiction, I think that Mornings in Jenin is a great alternative. Many of us can relate better to conflicts that are in the news when they are told in narrative form, whether that is fiction or nonfiction. We can understand the people in the conflict as PEOPLE, not as abstract entities, and thus our empathy is more likely to be engaged.
So, although there are flaws with Mornings in Jenin as a novel, I nonetheless urge as many Americans as possible to read it. I say “Americans” because our government and our media are so one-sided that we need to do all we can to learn about Palestinian perspectives.
(Perhaps readers from other parts of the world do not confront this same odd (to me) one-sidedness in their government and media. I’d be interested to hear more from all of you on this subject.)
Ordinary Grace, a novel by William Kent Krueger, 2013 . Atria/Simon & Schuster
“He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain, which cannot forget, fails drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.” -Aeschylus (quoted in Ordinary Grace)
Semi-Spoiler Alert: In this post, I will not reveal “whodunit,” but I will reveal one of the characters who is found dead in the middle of the novel.
In the early 1960s in New Bremen, a small town in Minnesota, nothing much ever happened—at least most of the time. During one hot summer, however, several people died unexpectedly, some of them from foul play. We learn about this town and these deaths in the novel Ordinary Grace, told from the perspective of 13-year old Frank Drum. Frank is the son of Nathan, a preacher whose faith in God is unshakeable, and Ruth, a restless woman who wants more than her small-town life can give her. Frank has a younger brother, Jake, and an older sister, Ariel. As the novel unfolds we learn more about the dynamics of this family and their interactions with other members of the small community.
Minnesota author William Kent Krueger is perhaps best-known for his mystery novels featuring detective Cork O’Connor, most of which are set in northern Minnesota. Writing about murder, then, is nothing new to him. However, Ordinary Grace is not a crime or mystery novel. Figuring out who is responsible for the various deaths that occur this summer is only part of what this novel is about. It is, more importantly, about how survivors respond to loss and how grief affects us all differently.
This question of loss comes to the fore midway through the novel when we find out that one of the people found dead is Ariel, the beloved daughter of Nathan and Ariel. It is one thing for a pastor to minister to other people who are suffering. It is quite another thing when this pastor has to grapple with his own devastating loss. As Nathan and his wife attempt to come to terms with the murder of their daughter, readers see how differently the husband and wife respond to their loss. Their reactions are so different, in fact, that their marriage nearly founders upon the rocks of their grief.
Despite the horror of losing his young daughter, Nathan never for a moment falters in his Christian faith. This is not to say that he does not grieve for Ariel; of course he does. His soul, however, is not tormented to anywhere near the extent his wife’s is. Far from being comforted by her husband’s faith, she is, in fact, enraged by it.
In one scene, for example, Ruth expresses her despair to Frank by saying, “There is no God to care about us. We’ve got only ourselves and each other. . . . But your father, Frankie, he cares more about God than he does about us. And to me that’s like saying he cares more about the air and I hate him for that.” (224)
This scene, I think, beautifully encapsulates one of the core conflicts of this book. Not only does Ruth not share her husband’s faith in God, she actively resents it. She cannot understand why Nathan is not as shattered and full of rage as she is. It appears to her that he simply does not love her or their child as much as he should. She mistakes spiritual peace for indifference.
I found Krueger’s portrayal of a family’s grief and their struggles with faith profound and moving. Overall, I found the novel compulsively readable as well as emotionally satisfying and I would highly recommend it to others. One element of the novel, though struck me as false: the quickness with which Ruth recovers her equanimity. One day she is raging with fury and even leaves her husband because he says the word “God” too much. Then, already a day after her beloved daughter’s funeral, her emotional fragility is gone and she says, “It hurts terribly, Emil. Maybe it always will. But I’ve survived and I believe I’ll be all right.”
This scene strikes me as unrealistic, happening just a few days (possibly a week?) after the child in whom she had invested all her hopes for the future is taken away by a murderer. Krueger’s portrayal of her earlier fragility and rage seem believable, but this “recovery” strikes me as coming much too soon. Yes, the narrator tells us he does find her crying occasionally in the next few months, but still that does not seem like enough to me for a parent who has lost their child far ahead of their time.
But maybe I am wrong. Maybe people CAN recover more quickly than I expect them to. This discussion reminds me last season of “Downton Abbey,” in which Lady Mary was grieving from the sudden loss of her husband. The family “allowed” her six months to grieve. After that, she was expected to “get on with living.” Yes, I know, “Downton Abbey” is not real life. But I do see this reaction in the broader society as well. It seems that we get the message that if we are to grieve, we should get it done as quickly as possible and we shouldn’t make too much of a spectacle of ourselves. This strikes me as being more about the needs of the non-grievers than about the needs of the grievers. It seems that others simply do not want to be bothered too much with other people’s pain. But perhaps I am off-base here.
What do you think? Do you think we are “supposed” to grieve for a set amount of time? If so, how much is the “right” amount?
You’ve read everything on your ‘to read’ shelf (ok, I’m joking) And got through everything you were given as a Christmas gift. So now you’re in the mood to look ahead and start planning what to read over coming months. Naturally the authors and publishers know that no matter how many books lying unopened on your shelves avid readers always want more.
This year will see new issues from some of the foremost writers of our times (work from at least three Nobel Laureates) and a few second books from people whose debuts got them noticed.
The selection below is just a fraction of course of what will be published (they don’t include science fiction, YA or fantasy since none of those genres have appeal for me). If you think I’ve missed something new and notable, do let me know.
And of course tell me what you’re most looking forward…