THE LONELY HEARTS HOTEL

 

HEATHER O’NEILL

Two abandoned babies are dropped off at the orphanage run by sadistic nuns. Rose develops a gift for humour and movement; Pierrot for music. When they were young adolescents they were sent to rich people’s homes to entertain for generous donations to the orphanage. Escape seems possible, happiness imminent. They dream of creating their own circus together for fame and fortune. As the mother superior knows, though, happiness always leads to tragedy. Rose and Pierrot are farmed out as teens to separate homes, with no idea where the other has gone. And the Sisters make sure they never find each other. A good portion of the book is the two yearning for each other and almost crossing paths, so it is a delight when they find each other as adults.

Hotel reminded me of The Night Circus which was full of magic realism. O’Neill is a wonderful writer so Hotel is a page turner.

“Women were still strange and inscrutable creatures. Men didn’t understand them. And women didn’t understand themselves either. It was always a performance of some sort. Everywhere you went, it was like there was a spotlight shining down on your head. You were on a stage when you were on the trolley. You were being judged and judged and judged. Every minute of your performance was supposed to be incredible and outstanding and sexy.
You were often only an ethical question away from being a prostitute.”

All children are really orphans. At heart, a child has nothing to do with its parents, its background, its last name, its gender, its family trade. It is a brand-new person, and it is born with the only legacy that all individuals inherit when they open their eyes in this world: the
inalienable right to be free.” 

ETTA and OTTO and RUSSELL and JAMES

EMMA HOOPER

ETTA, 83 years young, sets off to walk to the ocean, the long way from her farm in Saskatchewan. “I’ve never seen the water, so I’ve gone there, I’ll try to remember to come back.” reads the note she left her husband Otto. In the wild, Etta meets James, a coyote who talks and sings cowboy songs when no one else is around. Otto chooses to wait for her return. He keeps busy building a papier-mache menagerie of all kinds of animals. The reader does have to suspend belief that a woman suffering from dementia can walk over 3,200 kilometres and never sleep indoors or have to deal with winter. This story is balanced with the story of their youth when Etta was a teacher and Otto was her pupil for a short time before he went off to war. While he was fighting in Europe the two correspond with a multitude of letters. She corrects his mistakes and improves his literacy. They have a brief but intense relationship when he comes home on leave, but when he departs Etta is left with Russell, with whom she has a more traditional courtship.

Etta is a fun, light read reminiscent of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.

SUCH A LOVELY LITTLE WAR: Saigon 1961-63

MARCELINO TRUONG978-1-55152-647-8_suchalovelylittlewar-1

Both a memoir and a history, War is an informative window to what we call the Vietnam War; in Vietnam it is called the American War. Truong’s father was a Vietnamese diplomat in Washington, his mother a French woman with bipolar disease.During his early childhood in Washington, DC, the Truongs enjoyed a peaceful life in “a quiet middle-class suburb, something Norman Rockwell might imagine.” Truong describes this period as nothing short of idyllic: jazz on the car stereo, picnics by the water, white Christmases. When the father was called home, he became interpreter to Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem. His mother had not wanted to leave the US and was unsettled in her new home. In Saigon, the children live a sheltered existence, punctuated by the war. When the Americans escalate the conflict by sending more weapons and troops, the Truong boys become increasingly more enthralled by the grandiose machines of destruction. They are disturbed more by their mother’s emotional outbursts and irrationalities than the war in the background. We also have the unique perspective of his father who had extraordinary access to the inner workings of power thanks to his role as President Ngô Dinh Diêm’s interpreter.

MISCHLING

AFFINITY KONAR28664920

Josef Mengele, the Auschwitz physician who not only sent countless men, women and children to the gas chambers, but also performed grotesque experiments on selected prisoners — especially twins, whom he eagerly sought out upon arrival. Konar makes the emotional lives of her two spirited, twin narrators piercingly real, as they recount, in alternating chapters, the story of their efforts to survive: Pearl, once the more outgoing of the sisters, becomes more methodical, more focused on memories to get through each day; while Stasha grows feistier and more cunning — “a creature capable of tricking her enemies and rescuing her loved ones.”

Once inseparable, the twins are broken in different ways by Mengele’s repulsive experiments, which damage Stasha’s hearing and sight; and leave Pearl in an isolated cage, her ankles snapped and her feet smashed.

Mischling is a dark book but light radiates in the girls’ strength and will to survive. It’s a great read.

Forgiveness “did not remove my pain or blunt my nightmares. It was not a new beginning. It was not, in the slightest, an end. My forgiveness was a constant repetition, an acknowledgment of the fact that I still lived; it was proof that their experiments, their numbers, their samples, was all for naught — I remained, a tribute to their underestimations of what a girl can endure. In my forgiveness, their failure to obliterate me was made clear.”

Mischling (“mixed-blood” in German) was the German legal term used in Nazi Germany to denote persons deemed to have both Aryan and Jewish ancestry.

YUGE!: 10 Years of Doonesbury on Trump

G B TRUDEAUtrudeau-yuge-s650

I am so sick of Trump! I can’t stand seeing his ugly mug, hearing his voice or reading about him. But when I read of this compilation of Gary Trudeau’s Trump cartoons, I knew I had to check it out. And it is worth the time. Trudeau’s cutting sense of humour is a perfect foil for the Donald. It starts in the fall of 1987, can you imagine, when Trump was first starting to talk about running for President. One of the funniest pages comes at the end with Donald asking kids, “Hey Kids, tired of getting killed on insults in the cafeteria? Then start fighting back with my quality TRUMP Brand Insults. Choose from over 500 TREMENDOUS insults I’ve tweeted since last June including…” Then there are two pages of insults. Most presidential.

It all ends of course with the election that is ongoing this fall. Hopefully come Nov. 8 we will be laughing not crying.

THE DESERTER’S TALE: The Story of an Ordinary Soldier Who Walked Away from the War in Iraq

JOSHUA KEY as told to LAWRENCE HILLdeserter's

Key thought joining the U.S. military was a way to escape the poverty of his youth and get a decent-paying, secure job, perhaps even an education, to support his growing family. In many ways, Key was an ideal recruit: he had a childhood fascination with guns, he was a bit of a fighter but still followed orders, and he was good with his hands. He even enjoyed boot camp where they were taught all Iraqis were terrorist, even the babies. In Iraq, Key took part in acts of cruel and vindictive violence. His squad’s nightly tasks become a routine of violence and the abuse of power: raiding civilian homes, brutalizing the inhabitants, destroying the contents, stealing the valuables and taking the men and boy five feet tall away, never to be seen again. Key does not know where these men, who were not arrested for any crime, were sent: perhaps to Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay. joshua keyThey never found any terrorists, caches of weapons or weapons of mass destruction. Yet they were ordered to do the same thing night after night. At first there was no resistance. Then gradually resistance began to build. Key commented that if a foreign power landed in the US and terrorized the citizens the same way there would be hell to pay.

“We claimed to be bringing democracy and good order to the people of Iraq, but all we brought were hate and destruction. The only thing gave to the people of Iraq was a reason to despise us–for generations to come.”

When home for a two week break Key realized he could not return. He was already suffering from PTSD. Eventually, he made it to Canada where he applied for asylum.

“I will never apologize for deserting the American army. I deserted an injustice and leaving was the only right thing to do. I owe one apology and one apology only and that is to the people of Iraq.”

lawrence-hill_584During the 60’s and 70’s Canada’s door were open to anti-war protestors. I hope that will happen again with our recent change of government. Canada benefited from the creative and entrepreneurial spirit those immigrants brought. One name that comes to mind is the Canadian author Robert Munsch.

THE UNQUIET DEAD

unquietAUSMA ZEHANAT KHAN

An unusual death.   A man fell off a cliff. But was it an accident, a suicide, or a murder. Who was Christopher Drayton? A wealthy patron of the arts, supporting the new museum of Andalucia, the Spanish state with most Moorish influence. But could he be Drazen Krstic, the driving force behind theSrebrenica massacre of 1995, in the genocidal war that followed the break up of Yugoslavia. Esa Khattak, head of Toronto’s Community Policing Section, and Rachel Getty, his sergeant, handle minority sensitive cases, are tasked to find a solution to this case.

This a great mystery. Don’t miss it. I want to read more of her books. Her next is the Language of Secrets.

This is a LINK to a Bosnian woman’s victim’s statement to a UN’s inquest. Khan had an extensive author’s note at the end of the novel.

THE BLUE BETWEEN SKY AND WATER

bluebetween_192_290SUSAN ABULHAWA

BLUE tells another important story: the story of the Palestinians. It traces the Baraka family as they are forced off their land and out of their ancestral village of Beit Daras during the expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland when Israel was created in 1948. They relocate to the Gaza Strip. It tells the story of Israeli colonialism, when victim becomes victimizer. But much more it describes the Palistinian culture. When they celebrate with feast and dancing: “We find our own way to freedom. Zionist sons of Satan cannot imprison our joy, can they?” The women’s culture of cooking and gossiping is beautiful. Nazmiyeh is the matriarch, the center of a household of sisters, daughters, granddaughters, whose lives threaten to spin out of control with every personal crisis, military attack, or political landmine.

“Stories matter. We are composed of our stories. The human heart is made of the words we put in it. If someone ever says mean things to you, don’t let those words go into your heart, and be careful not to put mean words in other people’s hearts.”

“But I have never before watched soldiers entice children like mice into a trap and murder them for sport.”

While reading this novel I frequently thought of the song My Personal Revenge. Jackson Browne singing a Jorge Caleron Poem.

My Personal Revenge

My personal revenge will be the right
Of our children in the schools and in the gardens
My personal revenge will be to give you
This song which has flourished without panic
My personal revenge will be to show you
The kindness in the eyes of my people
Who have always fought relentlessly in battle
And been generous and firm in victory
My personal revenge will be to tell you good morning
On a street without beggars or homeless
When instead of jailing you I suggest
You shake away the sadness there that blinds you
And when you who have applied your hands in torture
Are unable to look up at what surrounds you
My personal revenge will be to give you
These hands that once you so mistreated
But have failed to take away their tenderness
It was the people who hated you the most
When rage became the language of their song
And underneath the skin of this town today
Its heart has been scarred forevermore
It was the people who hated you the most
When rage became the language of their song
And underneath the skin of this town today
Its heart has been scarred forevermore
And underneath the skin of this town today
Red and black, it’s heart’s been scarred
Forevermore
You can listen to it on you tube.   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B4NwJLHeYeM

SAD PENINSULA

MARK SAMPSON

The sad peninsula is Korea. Invaded and colonized by Japan in 1910, Koreans were forced to become Japanese in language and custom. One of the worst atrocities was the imprisonment and rape of young girls as “comfort women” for Japanese soldiers. Eun-young was a Korean comfort woman sent to China. She was repeatedly raped and tortured as many as 35 times a day.The narrative relies less on sex and more on her emotions, what she thought about, day-to-day events, her relationship with her close friend and their struggle for survival.  Sad is a difficult read but it is important that these stories are told. Eun-young’s story is balanced by the story of Michael, a Canadian man teaching English in present day Korea. He meets and falls in love with the niece of Eun-young.

This was published the day I finished the novel. Check out some of the links. And read the book.

Reparations for the “comfort women”

Yong Soo Lee, a Korean woman forced into sexual slavery by Japanese forces, in Virginia to raise awareness on behalf of fellow survivorsSarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images

  • Japan has reached an agreement with South Korea to apologize and provide restitution for the widespread, systematic kidnapping and rape of so-called “comfort women” by the Japanese Army during World War II. [The Diplomat / Yuki Tatsumi]
  • If you aren’t familiar with the stories of the “comfort women,” these testimonies from a UN report, compiled by NPR’s Elise Hu, are a horrifying, but necessary, place to start. [NPR via Tumblr / Elise Hu]
  • As Vox’s Max Fisher explains, the horrific treatment of the “comfort women” was easily swept under the rug after the war: by Japan, by the Allies, and by Korea itself (women were often blamed for their own rapes). [Vox / Max Fisher]
  • It took until 1993 for Japan to issue a formal apology to South Korea — and that apology ended up prolonging the controversy, as Japanese conservatives pushed back against it and claimed that South Korean women were volunteers. [Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan]
  • Japanese nationalism is, if anything, more prominent now than it was then. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been relatively unapologetic for Japan’s behavior during the war, and has rolled back many of the isolationist policies that were designed to protect Japan from returning to the imperialism of its past. [Washington Post / Max Fisher]

FATHERLAND

fatherlandNINA BUNJEVAC

As the title suggests Fatherland is more of a history of the Serbs and Croats, and of the author’s family than a memoir. The beautiful artwork in this graphic history is done in a photorealistic style that adds credence to her writing. She uses her writing to come to terms with her father’s shadowy, violent past, the national schisms that shaped him, and the scars that both fatherhood and fatherland leave on her family, and they are many. When she was just 2 years old, her mother, Sally, fled her father, taking Nina and her sister from their adopted home of Ontario, Canada, back to their grandparents in the former Yugoslavia. Sally Bunjevac was driven in part by Peter Bunjevac’s emotional abuse and alcoholism, but there was more: She’d become aware that he was involved in a Serbian nationalist terrorist group, one that was manufacturing bombs. Every night Sally barricaded the windows with tall furniture, afraid someone would throw a bomb in and blow them up in their beds.

Fatherland is a quick read. Recommended for anyone interested in the conflict in the former Yugoslavia.

 

 

RU

KIM THUYru

Ru, in French, denotes a small stream or a flow – of water, blood, tears or anything else; in Vietnamese, ru means a lullaby. Ru is a story of a life turned from magic into horror, followed by a new beginning in Canada. When the Communists eventually conquer Saigon, diamonds and gold are sewn into cuffs and collars, and all the children are put into different boats to escape to ensure that at least some will survive. The refugee camp build for 200 hold 2000 in unimaginable conditions. When they arrive in Canada the mother must take work cleaning houses even though she has never touched a broom in her life. They live their lives by the Vietnamese motto,  “Life is a struggle in which sorrow leads to defeat.” 

Beautifully written Ru is a must read. This concise novel is in the running for Canada Reads.

“I moved forward in the trace of their footsteps as in a waking dream where the scent of a newly blown poppy is no longer a perfume but a blossoming: where the deep red of a maple leaf in autumn is no longer a colour but a grace; where a country is no longer a place but a lullaby.” 

“That American dream had given me confidence to my voice, determination to my actions, precision to my desires, speed to my gait and strength to my gaze. That American dream made me believe I could have everything, that I could go around in a chauffeur-driven car while estimating the weight of the squash being carried on a rusty bicycle by a woman with eyes blurred by sweat; that I could dance to the same rhythm as the girls who swayed their hips at the bar to dazzle men whose thick billfolds were swollen with American dollars; that I could live in the grand villa of an expatriate and accompany barefoot children to their school that sat right on the sidewalk where two streets intersected.” 

ISLAND OF A THOUSAND MIRRORS

nayomi-munaweer_1368278394NAUOMI MUNAWEERA

When a dark cloud of racism descends on a country you know only pain suffering will follow. Island tells the story of the civil war in Sri Lanka, the majority Buddhists against the minority Hindus Tamils. “They are taking our land. They are taking our jobs. They are darker than us. They should go back where they came from.” Similar words to other racists situations. Yasodhara Rajasinghe; her sister, Lanka; and their best friend, Shiva, grow up in the same house in Colombo — the Sinhala (Buddhist) girls downstairs and the Tamil boy upstairs, in a partition that matches their island’s. When the Tamil family first occupy the top floor their is much strife but as time passes the families grow to love each other. Of course the children see no difference between the two households. When the violence that has stayed latent finally explodes, the residents of the house are thrown to the wind, navigating difficult, self-consciously new lives in the United States.  But the reader is taken back to Sri Lanka where Saraswathi, a Tamil teenager is brutally attacked by Sinhala soldiers. Damaged goods, no man would marry her, she would only bring shame to her family. Her parents take her to become a soldier of the Tamil Tigers. The two stories are brought together in an explosive ending.

I enjoyed learning about the civil war in Sri Lanka. Well written, Island is a good read.

 

 

WHEN THE EMPEROR WAS DIVINE by JULIE OTSUKA and THE GARDEN OF EVENING MISTS by TAN TWAN ENG

emperorThe synchronisity of books. Divine is about the internment of Japanese-America citizens during world war two. I enjoyed the simplicity of the writing. It starts with a woman seeing a sign in a window as she was returning a book to the library. When she got home she started packing. At first the reader does not know what is happening or why. The father, who has always been a dapper man, is taken at night. Not allowed to dress he is forced to leave in his pajamas. They don’t see her husband or their father again until after the war, over three years. At first the family is housed in a converted stable in San Francisco. Later they are taken to a camp in the desert where it is hot, dry and dusty all the time. The boy, only 7 when his family is forced from its home. He passes his days in the camp playing marbles and Chinese checkers — or ”cops and robbers and war. ‘ Kill the Nazis! Kill the Japs!'” Otsuka isn’t shy about showing how the children become caught up in the anti-Japanese hysteria. She’s frank as well about the family members’ efforts to erase all trace of Japanese character or culture as they succumb to the complex shame of being falsely accused.  Before they left the mother prepared her family for departure: burying the family silver, destroying all Japanese memorabilia (kimonos, tea sets, opera records, letters from relatives in Japan), disposing of the family pets. Divine is a good book but there are several Canadian books on the same subject that are much better, for instance Obasan by Joy Kogawa.

garden-of-evening-mistsThen I picked up Evening Mists, which is about a British-Malasian woman Yun Ling Teoh who’s family was incarcerated during WWII by the Japanese. Her sister was immediately selected to be a “comfort woman”; what a horrible euphemism for a condition of repeated forced rape. One of the officers said that she was one of the lucky ones. That the comfort women in larger centres had to service many times more men. The main character worked in the kitchen and would steal left overs from officers plates. When she was caught the officer cut off two fingers from her dominant hand. Many men and women died in the camp and more came to replace them. They were digging mines. The women were carting stones away by hand to dump them. When the war ended, the guards forced all the prisoners into the mines and blew them up. Ling escaped because she had become a translator for the camp officials. After the war she set out to acutalize her sister’s dream of creating a Japanese garden. She went to the Malaysian highlands to request Aritomo, who had been the emperor’s gardener to help her build a garden for her sister. He refuses but told her he will teacher her by having her work for him in his garden. The garden called Evening Mists is where she learned about the art of borrowed scenery, “taking elements and views from outside a garden and making them integral” to the garden itself. Evening Mists was the masterpiece of Aritomo, who eventually helps heal the trauma of her imprisonment. She goes on to study law and becomes the second female judge in Malaysia. Evening Mists is a book I highly recommend.

THE BOSNIAN LIST

KENAN TREBINCEVIC and Susan Shapiro

The Bosnia List is one of the best memoirs I have read. It describes the events leading to his Muslim family’s flight from Brcko, Bosnia, Kenan was a boy, 11, living in the city of Brcko when the Balkan war started in the former Yugoslavia. The Serbians, Orthodox Christian led by the convicted war criminal Milosevic wanted a larger county of citizen purely of their kind. So they attacked the roman Catholic Croatians and Muslim Bosnians. Bosnia was 45% Muslim, 32% Serbian and 17% Croatian. The war turned into a genocide with concentration camps, torture, mass killings and rape as a form of warfare. In Bosnia it was neighbour against neighbour, friend against friend. Kenan had to do the shopping and chores because if his dad or older brother were seen out side they could be shot or take to a concentration camp. “Although I was only 11,” he writes, “letting my family down made me feel like a failure.”bosnia  “The first sacrifice of war was her flowers,” he writes of his mother. “We kept our shades closed to avoid being sprayed with bullets. Without sunlight, her cactus and hibiscus withered.”  Kenan’s teacher caught him outside, put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger but luckily the mechanism jammed. His beloved karate coach Pero, who he loved and respected, threatened to kill him. “Everything he’d ever taught me about brotherhood and unity was a lie.”

Trebincevic returns to Bosnia armed with a list — the people he wants to confront because of their betrayals, and the places he needs to visit because of their childhood significance. First on the list is his need to accost Petra, a former neighbour across in their apartment building, who stole from Trebincevic’s now-deceased mother. “You won’t be needing that soon,” she would say as she took the mother’s possessions. They were scared of her because Petra could turn them into the military. They see that they are doing much better that the people left behind in Bosnia and that is a type of revenge in itself.

Although the descriptions of his family’s experiences during the war are gripping, the power of the book comes from the change in Trebincevic’s thinking and emotions as he moves through his anger and revenge fantasies. Trebincevic gradually remembers the help his family received. For every neighbour or friend who betrayed them because they were Muslim, another Serb neighbour or friend reached past religion and ethnicity to help — often at great personal risk. Ranko who was a torturer, rapist and mass murderer for some reason spared this family. Zorica and Milos, the neighbours who bring them food, propane and money.  This is definitely a must read.

CUTTING FOR STONE

cutting-for-stone220ABRAHAM VERGHESE

Marion and Shiva Stone are born one sultry day in 1954 in Addis Ababa, the same day their mother — a nun, Sister Mary Joseph Praise — dies of complications from her hidden pregnancy. The boys are conjoined at the skull, separated at birth, still they feel an amazing connection. The twins are raised by Dr. Kalpana Hemlatha, a strong willed woman known as Hema, and Dr. Abhi Ghosh, both immigrants from Madras and both doctors at the hospital where the boys’ natural parents also worked. Missing Hospital, it’s called: “Missing was really Mission Hospital, a word that on the Ethiopian tongue came out with a hiss so it sounded like ‘Missing.’ ” They grow up amid the political turmoil of Ethiopia. They both learn medicine beside their parents, Marion along side his surgeon father, Shiva with his gynecologyst mother. In 1979 Marion flees, first to Nairobi and finally to New York, where he qualifies as a surgeon. Shiva, too, goes into medicine, specializing in treating vaginal fistula, for which work he is acclaimed. In New York Marion finds his long lost father the famous transplant surgeon Thomas Stone, who fled at their birth and the death of his lover Sister Mary Joseph Praise.

“How beautiful and horrible life is, Hema thought; too horrible to simply call tragic. Life is worse than tragic.”

“My father, for whose skills as a surgeon I have the deepest respect, says, “The operation with the best outcome is the one you decide not to do.” Knowing when not to operate, knowing when I am in over my head, knowing when to call for the assistance of a surgeon of my father’s caliber–that kind of talent, that kind of “brilliance,” goes unheralded.”

Stone is a great read. You learn a lot about Ethiopia and medicine.

THE ORENDA

JOSEPH BOYDENboyedn

o·ren·da:   a supernatural force believed by the iroquois Indians to be present, in varying degrees, in all objects or persons, and to be the spiritual force by which human accomplishment is attained or accounted for.

Boyden describes the forces that led to the decimation of Canada’s First Nations culture. The novel is set in is set in mid-17th-century Huron territory, during a period of brutal skirmishes between the Huron and the Iroqouis, just as the Catholics launch their campaign to convert aboriginal peoples. The story is told by three rotating voices. The vengeful Bird, whose beloved family was murdered by the Iroquois; the equally vengeful Snow Falls, the Iroquois girl he kidnaps partly to assuage this loss; and Christophe, sent by his superiors in New France to convert the natives. The novel opens in winter, and with bloodshed. The great Wendat – Huron – elder and warrior, Bird, massacres a party of Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois, and kidnaps a young girl. She is called Snow Falls, and Bird, haunted by the slaughter of his own wife and children at the hands of his arch-enemy years before, insists on making her his own  child. “She contains something powerful,” he thinks. This seems to have been a common practice at the time. Also taken as prisoner was a “Crow,” or Jesuit, who the Haudenosaunee party had been escorting home to torture to death.  Bird finds him “big, thick through the chest and clearly strong,” he asks, “is he not the most awkward man I’ve ever met?” Snow Falls, carried by the big Jesuit through the snow, is neither grateful nor impressed. When the “other prisoner” bends over her, “he smells so bad that I want to throw up, his breath stinking like rotted meat.” She wants to kill Bird in revenge and be rid of the foul-smelling Crow.  The priest believes the native peoples are less than human. “Forgive me, Lord, but I fear they are animals in savagely human form.”

This page turner is a must read for all.

A HOUSE IN THE SKY

houseAMANDA LINDHOUT & SARA CORBETT

In 2008, when she decided to go to Somalia, Lindhout was an aspiring journalist. She had travelled the Americas, Asia and Africa. She had spent seven months in Baghdad working for Iran’s Press TV, sending freelance files to France 24, six months in Afghanistan as her first and unsuccessful correspondent bid, and had a column in her small hometown newspaper, the Red Deer Advocate, all funded by tips saved from her Calgary job as a waitress.

amandaTwo days after flying to Mogadishu with Australian fellow adventurer and photographer Nigel Brennan, the former couple were kidnapped. Their kidnappers confessed that they hadn’t even been their target. They had been after the National Geographic team who were staying at the same hotel as Lindhout and Brennan. The kidnapping was based completely on money. The captors wanted $2 million for their release. But neither family had much money.  Amanda quickly took lead of the two captives, appeasing the kidnappers as much as possible. At her urging they both converted to Islam and began to pray and study the Koran. But as time wore on patience failed also. There is a passage in the Koran that says it is alright for men to use women who are captive in times of war. But there were other forms of abuse that Lindhout was subjected to that Brennan wasn’t. While she was being kept in a totally dark cell she notice that Brennen was sitting in sunlight and reading in his cell.

(The photo on the right

shows Amanda and Nigel on the day of their release in Somalia.)ama2

A positive ending, Lindhout has set up a foundation to enhance the lives of Somalian women through education. It is a difficult read but worth the time. The book is uneven: the first half needs quite a bit of skimming, while the second half is page turning.

THE BLIND MAN’S GARDEN

blind1

NADEEM ASLAM

In Nadeem Aslam’s memorable 2008 novel The Wasted Vigil, set in Afghanistan, beauty and pain were intimately entwined, impossible to keep apart. The various incompatibles in his new book The Blind Man’s Garden don’t surrender their separateness so magically. There are awkward gaps and residues despite the author’s great gifts of imagination.

The novel starts in late 2001 and takes place largely in Pakistan, though some sections are again set in Afghanistan, newly invaded. Elderly Rohan, eventually the blind man of the title, his vision gradually dimming, founded an Islamic school called Ardent Spirit with his wife Sofia. After her death he was forced out as the school became intolerant, a virtual nursery of jihad, but continues to live in the house that he built on the same site.

The main characters of The Wasted Vigil were non-natives, a Briton, an American and a Russian (partial roll call of the nationalities that have meddled in Afghanistan). There are no such mediating figures in the new novel, and they are missed. No doubt imperialistic reading habits die hard, the easy expectation of having otherness served up on a plate, but it’s not just that. For Nadeem Aslam to communicate the richness and depth of his characters’ culture, he must keep touching in the background they take for granted, in passages that float free of their points of view. He informs us for instance that orphaned children are likely to be sought out and asked to say prayers, since they belong to a category of being whose requests Allah never ignores, and that the Angel of Death is said to have no ears, to prevent him from hearing anyone’s pleas. When there’s a reference to mountains near Peshawar being “higher than the Alps placed onto the Pyrenees”, the European frame of reference is jarring.

Before the main characters are properly introduced a minor figure administers a distracting overdose of symbolism. A “bird pardoner” sets up snares in the trees of Rohan’s garden, trapping the birds in nooses of steel wire. He plans to sell them in the town, since freed birds say prayers on behalf of those who buy their freedom. He doesn’t come back, though, at the promised time, and the trees are full of suffering birds.

Another minor character is a mendicant who goes around wrapped in hundreds of chains. The idea is that each link represents a prayer, and disappears as Allah grants it. The book also contains a ruby that appears without explanation, just in time to ransom a prisoner from a warlord, though the warlord, taking offence at a lack of respect during the ransoming process, pulverises the jewel and uses it as an instrument of torture instead.

For most of the book Aslam’s command of detail is absolute, but there are some strange failures early on. A page-long description of dozens of horses bursting out of the ground (they had been buried alive by Rohan’s great-grandfather to prevent them being taken by rebels during the Indian Mutiny) is visually incoherent, and even some modern details seem very unreal – such as streams with dozens of beards floating in them, shaved off by fleeing al-Qaida militants.

All of this seems to suggest the winsome irrationality of magical realism. In time, magical realism may be seen as a self-imposed variant of orientalism, complicit in the exotic expectations of outsiders. We are given to understand that when it comes to certain countries, certain cultures, the truth is incredible and, conversely, the unbelievable must be true. This isn’t at all what Nadeem Aslam wants to do, which is (at a guess) to dissolve the false opposition between reason and wonder, and the presence of these elements is all the more puzzling.

The book has a plot that converges a number of times on the action-adventure thriller, though containing more pain than the genre allows. Unprotected by the gorgeousness ofblind2 Aslam’s language, the story is potentially novelettish or TV movie-like: two foster brothers (Rohan’s son and a boy raised with him) in love with the same woman run away to war. The details here are infinitely more convincing – though I don’t know for a fact that a .22 bullet, used to replace the fuse in a van’s headlights, will overheat and be fired into the driver’s leg after about 15 miles.

The balance between these grim adventures and the life of the family waiting in anguish just about holds, though Rohan’s daughter Yasmin is an oddly sketchy presence, introduced late and never emerging as a character in her own right. This is unfortunate since the marginalisation of women, as demonstrated by “a framed family tree that displays only the names of the males”, is a theme of this novel as well as its predecessor.

Though Rohan represents devout but enlightened Islam, there are contradictions in him that the book skips over. Sofia told him she had lost her belief before she died, and he is supposed to have withheld her medication so as to force her to reconsider, such was his fear of her damnation. Students from Ardent Spirit patrol the graveyard, preventing women from visiting their dead relatives (something they have decided is forbidden), but we’re not given Rohan’s reaction to this as he exercises his own uncontested visiting rights. In the quarrel over the school he had been promised that there would be no militant teaching, but that was because he was regarded as an infidel and therefore someone to whom promises could be broken. It isn’t clear whether he objects to this principle or just to being classified as an infidel. At moments like these The Blind Man’s Garden seems not so much to embrace pain, as The Wasted Vigil did so powerfully, as to shy away from discomfort.

I borrowed this review from  Adam Mars-Jones  in The Observer.

Blind Man’s Garden is a good read but Aslam’s previous novel Wasted Vigil is a great novel. Read them both.

SONG OF ACHILLES

MADELINE MILLERsong-of-achilles

A wonderful reworking of the familiar tale from the Illiad of the son of a goddess but still a mortal, Achilles. The story is narrated by Patroclus, Achilles’ best friend, companion and eventually lover. Patroclus, a prince, was exiled from his home for killing another prince, to be raised by King Peleus, Achilles’ father. Achilles is everything Patroclus is not: out going, beautiful, well loved by all and perfect. Their friendship and love affair rankles Achilles’ mother, Thethis, a miserable sea goddess, who tries to come between the two boys but fails. Achilles realises that he must go to war in Troy in order to fulfill his destiny and become a hero, the greatest warrior of all time. Patroclus, through fear and love for his companion, follows Achilles to fight in the war. The gods become involved in the war and it drags on for a decade.

An excellent read.