Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Barefoot in Baghdad by Manal M. Omar

Books like this become must reads for Westerners because all of us need to put a face on Iraqis and Muslims. We need to understand that in so many ways they and especially women are the victims of war.

Manal Omar has worked tirelessly for the rights of women around the world but she clearly has left her heart in Baghdad. She wrote this memoir to document her time spent in Iraq. It is part harrowing adventure in a war torn country, part how-to manual on responding to women's needs in times of destruction, and part Islamic love story.

The writing is at its most compelling when she tells individual stories of women she meets, their often horrifying problems, and the struggles she has to help each one.

The memoir turned into a page turner at the end as she fled Iraq and realized her love for a man with whom she had been working. Seeing how two Muslims would manage to find love and pursue a life together in Islamic culture was also fascinating.

This is an early review book so I have a copy if anyone would like to borrow it.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Breaking Night by Liz Murray

Breaking Night: 
Urban slang for staying up 
through the night until the sun rises.

Breaking Night by Liz Murray is rightly being compared to Jeannette Walls gripping account of her rise out of poverty in The Glass Castle.  Both memoirs feature a harrowing tale of a childhood in hell, and how each woman manages to pull herself up out of despair and create a life for themselves.

Even though these tales are similar, Breaking Night does feel new and fresh and original as Liz Murray does a great job of telling her own very authentic tale.

Recently, I read a memoir writing book that cautioned the writer never to  paint oneself as a victim. It is more important to tell your story with regard to your own truth, but never let it devolve into self-pity. Liz Murray has painted herself as an authentic believable human who has overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles  in rising from living on the streets and rejecting all formal schooling, to finishing school and being accepted at Harvard.  One of the most touching scenes I have ever read comes after a newspaper story of her is printed, men and women from all over the country come to her and offer to help.  A wall she had built for herself between us and them came toppling down.  She could not believe the generosity of people who she had never even met.

Equally as touching are the scenes she paints with her mother.  Even though her mother was an addict and refused to care for her children in any of the ways that we have come to regard as normal parenting, Liz loves her mother.  Liz's mom, in her own screwed up way, loves her right back. I loved that I always understood that.  As a reader, I never hated her parents, even though plenty of people probably should.  

Just as The Glass Castle kept me turning pages so did Breaking Night.  Don't be fooled into thinking this is the same story though. It is very different and very much worth the read.  Liz Murray has gone on to become a motivational speaker and owns a company which encourages people to be all they can be.  An important message for any of us.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Hoarding and Stuff

I have been thinking a lot lately about stuff.  My stuff, your stuff and all the stuff we have together.  I think we can all agree that we humans have created a lot of stuff.  There has been a lot of press lately about this guy named Dave and his 100 thing challenge.  Dave writes about paring the things of his life down to 100 and even lists them on his website.  (I love lists, so it was kind of fun to see what he deemed necessary.)  He set up his challenge, so of course he gets to set the rules which included all his books counting as 1 thing (library=300 plus books) and all his underwear counting as 1 thing ( for sanitary reasons).

I am not sure what it was about his challenge or about the many articles generated because of the challenge, but I immediately began to defend my ownership of things.  It is not bad to have things...as long as they don't get in the way of life or loving your family or take precedence over the important stuff.  But hey, I like my books and the art on my walls and the cool old card catalog I bought at the surplus store.  My closet is not as full as some, but I clean it out about once a year and send stuff to charity.  I like saving mementoes for posterity: report cards and child's handprints made into turkeys, birthday cards and little scribbles on napkins that remind you of a fun time you had bowling.  It all seems to be part of a time capsule and someday someone will piece together the story of you by what you leave behind.

Whenever I hear about someone getting rid of their things and living a simpler life, I feel a little sad inside.  Who will speak up for the stuff?  Surely you can be simple and still have some teapots and linen napkins and a junk drawer filled with treasures.  I have an antique desk that I no longer use and I opened it this afternoon to see what was there.  It was a perfect collection of who I was 16 years ago when I used the desk last: a party favor from a wedding, a picture of my dear Aunt, directions for how to write a manuscript for Harlequin romance novels, some stationary and pens, a little doll and a book mark.  This desk is a preserved piece of me.  I cherish it and I close the desk...happy to know it will always be there.

Anyway, as I am thinking about stuff and this seeming war on my stuff and how I might pare down even a little, I picked up this fascinating book on people who are exactly the opposite of the 100 things man.  The book is aptly titled Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things.  It turns out, according to this book, there are legions of people who have so much stuff it has become a pathology.  It seems I am the last to know that there is an entire A & E series devoted to people who hoard stuff and the vermin who live in their homes because there is so much stuff that it becomes a natural haven for critters.  Wow.  I had no idea.

The unsettling part is that although I don't think anyone could classify me as a hoarder -- my house is neat there are no pathways through the stuff.  I have only one pile and it is on my desk--I do relate to a lot of the characteristics of stuff.  I assign meaning to things that couldn't possibly have meaning.  I hang onto things for longer than most people would.  When I catch my husband throwing things away without my permission, I often retrieve it from the trash and wait to give it my own blessing.  Although on the hoarding scale of 1-10, I am barely a 1, it still feels a little awkward, my attatchement to things.  I guess I'll need to watch out for hoarding tendancies as I age.  I do want my kids to come and visit me.

Anyway,  this book is written by a pair of scientists, writing about this odd psychological disorder.  It is fascinating for all the reasons you might suspect.  I did try to watch an episode of Hoarders last week and it turned my stomach.  I couldn't watch. 

How about you?  Do you tend toward the hoarding behavior or the 100 things lifestyle?

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Dreaming in Chinese by Deborah Fallows

"Chinese may be the most difficult language for a Westerner to learn," Deborah Fallows writes in a clever book of essays about how Chinese culture is reflected through its language.  Fallows loves languages and linguistics, and when she and her husband are sent to live in China for three years, she uses her time there to study Mandarin. 

The way she deals with this subject is not only fascinating, but it really does allow us great insights into China and her people.  She writes about what seems to westerners to be Chinese rudeness but is really thier way of being polite. She spends generous time with the subject of the difficulty of understanding the tones of Chinese language, and how her inability to articulate tones would often lead her into humorous situations.  She discusses gendered pronouns and how Chinese have difficulty with that concept.  She writes of the multitude of Chinese languages and how they are all tied together by the characters: people who cannot understand each other's language across China can read the same characters.  She has another essay on the development and complexity of Chinese characters. 

I marvel at the brilliant discoveries one can make about a culture when examining the intricacies of language.   I feel like this primer would have served me well just before I went to China this past spring.  My husband, who is a language maven, is next in line to read this.  Anyone who is interested in language and how it is revelatory would love this collection.  Has anyone who studied Arabic written the same book?  If you know of one I would like to hear of it.

I close with this quote from the end of the book which is how I felt about my small time in China and my new commitment to embracining Chinese Culture.

"I did inch away from being overwhlemed at such a massive,intense, overwhelming country, toward touching a few people one by one, and getting a little closer to thier lives, however small the increment.  This reward gave me at least the illusion that I belonged, if just for a little bit in this extraordinary country at this moment in history". 

Well said, Ms. Fallows.  I hope you continue your lifelong journey of understanding China.