Wednesday, February 12, 2014

THE ART OF HEARING HEARTBEATS by Jan-Philipp Sendker (✰✰✰✰1/2)

It all begins with a question.  What is the most powerful emotion in life-love or fear?  Julia Win, American raised daughter of a Burmese father and American mother, would positively say fear.  For some reason that she cannot comprehend, her seemingly pragmatic father seems to believe absolutely that the answer is love.  On the morning of Julia’s law school graduation, her father abruptly disappears and fails to return, despite leaving a trail halfway across the world that leads investigators to believe that his exodus was voluntary.  Sparked by a love letter that she finds among his things, Julia decides to follow her reserved father to the place she suspects he spent the first twenty years of his life, twenty years about which he has never spoken.  She has two goals in mind-to try to find answers about the man her father was before he became a successful immigrant and to discover what role the mysterious woman, Mi Mi, with whom he appeared to correspond for almost half a century, might have played in his missing twenty years.  Once in Burma, Julia meets an elder in her father’s home village who shares with her the incredible story of the part of her father she never knew.  
As the reader tags along with U Ba, while he tells Julia the tale that begins to open her father’s soul to her, it becomes apparent that there is a wealth of Eastern wisdom that is going to pass from the perceptive elder into the heart of a young woman who desperately wants to answer questions not only of her father’s past, but also about her own relationship with him, and how her own consciousness can be enlarged by the things she learns.

For the most part the characters are fairly solid, with the exception of Tin Win, Julia’s father.  I found there to be too vast a gap in the characterization of the father that Julia knew and the man that he was in Burma as a young man.  However, as most of the book takes place in Burma, and the author makes the dichotomy that her father is revealed to be one of Julia’s main struggles, in an odd way it worked and didn’t bother me as much as it might have otherwise.  Still this issue was concerning enough, in my opinion, that it cost this lovely novel a five star rating.

In the end, life circles of love and time are both completed, giving this book a perfectly tuned conclusion, but not in the way readers are probably expecting.  I found it sublime, perhaps the finest denouement of any novel I have ever read.  Absolutely nothing was forced or rushed, in perfect harmony with the pacing and ambience of the novel.

There is so much to adore about this book.  The writing is absolutely gorgeous and frequently profound.  Much of the power in the book comes from the transcendence of the simple things in everyday life and the emotions that cross boundaries of culture and time.  In the novel, the main character really does possess the ability to hear heartbeats, but I think there is a deeper meaning implied by the title, that of being attuned to people in such a visceral fashion that you can reach into the very center of their being.  The incredible descriptive passages deprive the readers of their eyes and lead them down a path built on their other senses.  Kudos are definitely due to Kevin Wiliarty, who did the translation into English from Jan-Philipp Sendker’s original German.  The beauty of the language in this novel shows great skill on Mr. Wiliarty’s part.

The second element of the novel that cost it five stars was the narration.  Cassandra Campbell has narrated a number of titles that I have enjoyed, and I think that her mellow tone was perfect for the material.  However, her pace was so painstakingly slow that it caused otherwise exquisite material to stall and lose impact.  For the first time ever I used the feature on Overdrive which allows the speed to be increased.  Playing the audio at 1.25 helped considerably, but at times, especially during longer dialogs, the characters took on an almost Chipmunk sound.

I definitely recommend reading this novel in print, not only for the audio issues mentioned above, but also because there are going to be many passages that readers will want to highlight, such as those that I have shared here (Thank goodness for the Kindle Big Brother that keeps track of all Kindle readers’ highlighted passages, enabling me to add these here despite listening to the audio.):

“I speak of a love that brings sight to the blind. Of a love stronger than fear. I speak of a love that breathes meaning into life, that defies the natural laws of deterioration, that causes us to flourish, that knows no bounds. I speak of the triumph of the human spirit over selfishness and death.”

“Must one have seen the world? In this village, in every house, in every shack, you will find the entire range of human emotions: love and hate, fear and jealousy, envy and joy”

“Not all truths are explicable, Julia,” he said. “And not all explicable things are true.”

“There is nothing, for good or for evil, of which a person is incapable.”

“Life, U May told her, is a gift full of riddles in which suffering and happiness are inextricably intertwined. Any attempt to have one without the other was simply bound to fail.”

“He mumbled something about a virus, the virus of love, the infection which, if she had understood him correctly, everyone carried, but which only ever afflicted a few.”

"Do we leave the dead behind or do we take them with us? I think we take them with us. They accompany us. They remain with us if in another form."

Thursday, January 30, 2014

A LONG WAY GONE by Ishmael Beah ✰✰✰✰

When most Americans think about child soldiers in Africa, the first thing that generally comes to mind are the Lost Boys of Sudan.  Unfortunately, this is not a situation that is limited to Sudan, or even to Sierra Leone, the setting of this book by Ishmael Beah, who was forced to become a soldier, at the age of thirteen, for the army of his government.

It becomes clear, through sharing the author’s story, that for most of these boys becoming a child soldier is not a choice.  After running from their homes in an attempt to escape ravaging army or rebel factions, most are separated from family and even other adults as they flee into the jungle.  By banding together the boys manage to keep watch while others find shelter and sleep, but the necessity of food is what most often causes the boys to approach the villages, bringing them to the attention of armed factions who force them to either join them or be killed.  In a speech he later gave at the United Nations Beah said, “All this is because of starvation, the loss of our families, and the need to feel safe and be part of something when all else has broken down.”  Once under the control of the soldiers the boys are drugged with cocaine and marijuana, which impair their inhibitions and desensitize their consciences.

Beah fought for the Sierra Leone Army for almost three years, at which point a representative from UNICEF approached his commander and was allowed to take some of the youngest soldiers to a United Nations sponsored home in Freetown.  I have never had a very high opinion of the UN, but I was very impressed by the time and effort that Beah’s narrative clearly shows that UNICEF puts into assisting these traumatized children regain mental stability and recapture what remains of their childhood.

Clearly, the road back is both challenging and painful, coming to terms with the acts that they perpetrated against others and needing to learn to forgive themselves.  And nothing will ever fully eradicate the dreams and waking visions these traumatized boys experience.  One of Ishmael’s friends, in the midst of their trials, put it in heartbreaking terms:

“How many more times do we have to come to terms with death before we find safety?  Every time people come at us with the intention of killing us, I close my eyes and wait for death.  Even though I am still alive, I feel like each time I accept death, part of me dies.  Very soon I will completely die and all that will be left is my empty body walking with you.  It will be quieter than I am.”

Perhaps the phrase that Beah used that implanted itself most indelibly in my brain was his belief in the “fragility of happiness”.  After loosing everyone he loved and everything that made his life normal, he has a problem accepting that happiness can ever again be permanent.  He expressed it thus at one point:

“I couldn’t bring myself to be completely happy.  It was much easier to be sad than to go back and forth between emotions, and this gave me the determination I needed to keep moving.  I was never disappointed, since I always expected the worst to happen.”

This book is a challenging read on a number of levels.  For some reason, it is listed as a young adult read, and I know that some schools use it in their curriculum, but I would hesitate having a student younger than high school read it, given the atrocities that are described.  Yes, these acts were committed by middle grade boys, but those boys are having to learn to live with the visions in their heads and the stain on their souls.  I see no reason to put the weight of that ugliness into the minds of other young people who haven’t been forced to endure it to survive.  This is a long way from being the most explicit rendering of the atrocities of war that I have read, but it is still in no way, in my opinion, appropriate for young readers.  Another aspect is far less weighty.  The book is written by Ishmael Beah himself, and so is clearly drafted by someone for whom English is a second language; as such, the writing style does take some adjusting to.  I think this simplicity of language might well be why it is often thought an approachable read for middle school students.

Sometimes the very simplicity of the language works to beautiful advantage, especially when the author reminisces about his unrecovered family.  During the many, many months that Ishmael spent keeping himself alive in hiding, prior to capture by the soldiers, he said this:

“When I was very little, my father used to say, ‘If you are alive, there is hope for a better day and something good to happen.  If there is nothing good left in the destiny of a person, he or she will die.’  I thought about these words during my journey, and they kept me moving even when I didn’t know where I was going.  Those words became the vehicle that drove my spirit forward and made it stay alive.”

To me, although at the time the quote is used in the book it is used in a literal sense, this quote is a metaphor for the entire arc of Ishmael Beah’s experience.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014


Author Alexandra Fuller grew up in what is now Zimbabwe, which is what drew me to this book.  Those of you who have followed my reviews for a while know that one of the most enthusiastic reviews I have ever written was after reading a galley for Peter Godwin’s sensational work of narrative nonfiction, The Fear.  While Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness has its moments, Ms. Fuller is simply nowhere near the writer that Mr. Godwin is. 

Despite the fact that I am giving this book a relatively low rating, let me say that I laughed more while reading this than I have in a very long time.  Sometimes a bit shamefacedly, because Nicola Fuller was clearly a bit unbalanced.  Cocktail Hour is part memoir of the author’s memories of her mother while she and her siblings were growing up but is for the most part a biography of her mother, otherwise known as Nicola Fuller of Central Africa.  Many, many sections of dialog are used, which is what lends the wonderful humor to the book.  You feel as if you are right there listening to their zany family interactions, not to mention her mother’s madcap advice to her children.  Growing up Nicola Fuller’s daughter was always an adventure.

The story, however, goes far beyond the time of the author’s reckoning and gives a full history of Nicola’s life, beginning as the daughter of a landed, if impoverished, Scotsman, through her move to Africa with all its adventures in the many countries that she lived in there.  While the beginning of the book is full of humor, the book deepens as it develops and Nicola’s life becomes difficult and psychologically more unbalanced.

More than anything, I loved how Alexandra Fuller showed her mother’s personal evolution, both mentally and physically, throughout the course of her life.  Nicola Fuller, for all her appearance of being a giddy woman, is a woman of great courage and fortitude, and by the end of the book I found myself admiring her a great deal.  What brought down my rating of the book was that I would like to have far more descriptive writing about the countries and their people, their way of life, and better background on the various conflicts.  Because I read a fair number of books on Africa, I could visualize, but I am not so certain that a reader picking this up as their first visit to Africa would be able to keep up.

If you want a story of a woman who has lived what is by any account an amazing life, this is probably a four star book, but I docked it a star for not giving me more of the pivotal supporting information about those events and people that must have shaped Nicola into the woman worth writing about.

One of my favorite quotes about Nicola Fuller:

“What my mother won’t say--lost in all her talk of chemicals and pills--is that she knows not only the route grief takes through blood but also the route it takes through the heart’s cracks.  What she won’t tell me is that recovering from the madness of grief wasn’t just a matter of prescriptions, but of willpower. [...]she took a different route and she regained herself and that had very little to do with the very talented psychiatrist and everything to do with forgiveness: she forgave the world and her mind returned.  She gave herself amnesty and her soul had a home again.  The forgiveness took years and it took this farm and it took the Tree of Forgetfulness.  It took all of that, but above all it took the one thing grief could never steal from my mother: her courage.”

Tuesday, January 21, 2014


What happens when you are at a major crossroad in your life and you make a radical decision to have one last wild hare event before making a commitment?  For author Julian Smith, the crossroads was finally deciding to marry his girlfriend, and the wild hare was to go to Africa and retrace the route of late 19th century adventurer Ewart Grogan from the Cape to Cairo.

Grogan made his trek in the final two years of the century in order to gain the approval of his beloved Gertrude’s step-father and his blessing on their becoming engaged to be married.  Prior to his journey through the Dark Continent, Grogan was nothing more than a Cambridge drop-out of humble parentage, while Gertrude’s family was one of New Zealand’s most prominent.  In the era in which they lived, becoming the first white man to cross Africa from south to north would bring Ewart fame, social standing (always of import to those colonial Brits), and open doors to enable him to make his fortune in the world.  So, after telling Gertrude that he would not contact her until he set foot in Cairo, having successfully completed his venture, Ewart Grogan set out to carve his place in history.
Author Julian Smith had read Grogan’s story and was amazed that unlike David Livingston and Henry Morton Stanley, Grogan is not remembered among the pantheon of great African explorers.  A freelance writer in a seven-plus-year relationship with his girlfriend, Laura, Smith felt a certain affinity for Grogan’s quest to find himself in the wilds of Africa, and so he decides to spend the final months before his marriage following the path that Grogan forged.

The book is essentially three tales: Grogan’s exploration story, Julian’s travel adventure, and Julian and Laura’s relationship.  My relatively low rating of the book is owed to the unevenness of the writing between the two adventure tales and the questionable necessity of the complete play-by-play of the modern couple’s path to a marriage proposal.

Let me begin with what I loved.  Julian Smith’s admiration of Ewart Grogan absolutely shines, and this passion feeds his writing about the explorer.  If he had written a straight biography of Grogan, I would have given the book five stars.  Unfortunately, Smith made the book part memoir as well.

After every section on the earlier adventurer, Smith tells his corresponding tale of traversing the same territory.  For the first half of the book it reads like one long whine fest, going from one mode of transport to the next, giving the reader very little compare/contrast info about the continent or its inhabitants between his time and Grogan’s.  Smith needed to get off the bus/boat/bike long enough to experience the journey.  To his credit, the second half of the book does show significant improvement in the telling of the author’s own story-that saved the book from a two star rating from me.

The third, lesser, tale of the book, the sojourn through the history of Julian and Laura’s relationship, felt completely irrelevant to the story.  Literally.  Everything the reader needs to know about their liaison is in the segments of Julian’s trip.  It was even more annoying because it seemed like every time the adventure story was at a cliff-hanger point it came to an abrupt pause in order to shift to another commonplace event from their rather ordinary (if you discount the author’s-admitted-inability to commit) life together.  The only thing I can say in the author’s defense is that the subtitle of the book, An Odyssey of Love and Adventure, does give the reader a heads-up that it isn’t all about being chased by rhinos while flagging from a malarial fever.

My advice to readers would be one of two things.  If you choose to read this book for its strong sections, skim or skip completely the relationship sections (unless you are really interested in that type of memoir, on its own merits).  Another thought might be to just give this book a complete miss and read Ewart Grogan’s own account of his journey, entitled From the Cape to Cairo.  Smith quotes extensively from Grogan’s work, and Ewart comes across as expressive and full of that wonderfully dry British wit and ability to find humor in just about any situation.  As I have not read Grogan’s work in full, I cannot compare the two and only offer the idea as a possible suggestion.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

BLOOD DIAMONDS by Greg Campbell ✰✰✰✰

In Blood Diamonds author Greg Campbell has a dual purpose: to tell the story of an African civil war that is based on economics as opposed to ethnicity or religion and to bring to light the dark genesis of conflict diamonds.  He is successful on both fronts.  Right from the first pages the reader is swept into the horror of life for noncombatants under the control of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), the rebel group fighting for dominion over the diamond trade.  A warning for the squeamish-like most books on modern African history, this one is very graphic.  However, Campbell’s no-holds-barred approach definitely prevents the reader from shying away from the agonizing reality that was life for even the most innocent of bystanders during Sierra Leone’s tragic civil war.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Sierra Leone’s conflict, which raged from 1991 until 2002, is that unlike most civil wars this one had nothing to do with religious or ethnic power plays. This was a complex blood for diamonds tapestry, motivated by the basest of all reasons: greed.  Because of this, foreign powers were extremely reluctant to commit troops and help end the conflict.  The United States was especially reticent as in 1999, when the war reached its pinnacle, the horrific memory of Mogadishu was still very much on the minds of the American public, making even attempts at diplomacy career suicide for politicians and diplomats. The problem simply felt insurmountable; at the time most Americans had no concept of just how exactly diamonds were being used in international black commerce.  Diamonds pack a huge value into a tiny, highly portable stone, and as such they have become the currency of choice for everyone from African dictators to Hezbollah, a source of funding that can never become a bank account bound asset frozen by foreign governments.  Campbell also lays out a very convincing trail of evidence linking the Al Qaeda attacks of September 2001 to conflict diamond financing.  

As you read this account of the outrages committed to convert these diamonds into the pretty baubles that western consumer societies desire, especially the United States, where 80% of all the world’s diamonds find their market, you cannot help but wonder how one can tell if the rock in their engagement ring originated in the blood bath of Sierra Leone.  The sad truth is that once a raw diamond has been cut and polished it is impossible to tell where the stone was mined, and certificates are virtually worthless, as the stones pass through literally dozens of middlemen, many of which are legitimate and could fabricate the certificate downstream of the conflict.  Britain and Switzerland even have an agreement to process each other’s stones and then claim the other as country of provenance.

Greg Campbell does an excellent job tracing the history of diamond mining and worldwide sales, giving a riveting depiction of the world famous DeBeers company, from its inception to its current place in the market.  This was absolutely my favorite aspect of the book.  I was blown away by how the power of marketing can so directly influence not only the economics, but the politics and even daily life of people in so many different economic strata around the world.

The audio, which is well narrated by Tim Weiner, clocks in at a short seven hours.  Admittedly, I did look up a map of west Africa, as I needed a clear picture in my head of the geography of the area (I cannot say whether the book provides maps), but that was simple and there is no other reason not to do this one in audio format.  Weiner’s performance hits just the right tenor for the subject matter; it would have been easy to become overly dramatic in parts, but he ably avoids that trap, lending dignity and substantive emotion to a narration that is in turns informative  and affecting.  Overall a tightly edited work of fine narrative nonfiction, which gets four stars from me and the final thought that this is one of those subjects about which we can all use educating.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013


Those who know me well know that I am a serious lover of The Teaching Company's The Great Courses.  Over the years I have checked out virtually every course, on either video or audio, that my local library has in their collection.  For those of you unfamiliar with what these are, they are series of lectures, each episode a half an hour in length, about a given subject.  Some have as few as six or eight installments, but others have more than thirty, varying dependent upon the scope and complexity of the subject being discussed.  Although the lectures are presented by some of the nation's top college professors they are very accessible, geared towards the adult who seeks to be a life-long learner.  I have also used many from a variety of subjects, with great success, in our homeschool.

The breadth of topics is staggering.  There are courses for virtually any era, event, or major personage from history.  If the arts are your thing you can learn about music from the age of Gregorian Chant to Stravinsky or painters from Fra Angelico through the post-modernists.  Want to learn more about a given author, some of the great classics, or how to get more out of your reading?  Perhaps you want to learn how to do mental math, learn games to make numbers fun, or help a student with their trigonometry.  There are courses for all of those as well.  If you want the concrete facts of science, or the more indeterminate studies of philosophy and religion, courses abound in their catalog.  If you want practical application there are courses in leadership, finance and economics, health and nutrition, communication skills, and critical thinking to name a few.

I have, over the years, posted reviews on some of these courses, even though they are not regular audio books per se.  What has prompted this blog post is the fabulous fact that these courses, at least the ones that are available in audio format, are now available from Audible, an audio book subsidiary of Amazon.  I make it a pretty firm tenet not to outright peddle products or endorse any companies-that is not what my blog is for, and I think my readers don't want to be advertised to-but if you are interested in these courses, you will not find a better source than Audible (who is not paying me either cash or products for this blog post).  Members of Audible pay a monthly fee of about $15.00, and for this you get a monthly credit.  Each credit will pay for one course; I looked up some of the longest courses that I knew of, and none were more than one credit.  Considering that most of these courses cost between $35-$60 if you are a non-member, if you are seriously interested in them, I would recommend joining as a member.  In addition, Audible often offers the opportunity for members to purchase three credits for about $35, making your savings even greater.  You can buy from Audible without committing to a monthly membership, but your costs will be higher than a member's, because in addition to their monthly credit, members also get better deals on items they choose to purchase if they do not have credits available.  Whether you are a member or not, Audible is still the best deal for The Great Courses.  Let me
give you an example.  The course entitled The American Civil War is regularly priced $249.95 on The Teaching Company's website; even on the short once yearly sale you would pay $64.95 (and not every course goes on sale every year).  Audible offers it for $52.95 for non-members and $37.06 for members choosing not to expend a credit.  However, if you are a member you can get it for your monthly credit price of less than $15.00, or a bit more than $11.00 if you are using extra credits you bought on special.

So why, you might ask, should I buy these courses at all if they are readily available from public libraries?  I guarantee you that you will want to listen to them many times over.  They are so information dense that it will take that to truly absorb everything that they have to impart.  And they are so enjoyable that listening more than once is a pleasure.  When we have checked them out from the library I have also had difficulty finding time to listen to the longer series before they are due back, and invariably there is someone with a hold on them so that they cannot be renewed.

If you are interested in learning more about Audible's offerings, here is their URL:

If you want more information of the courses themselves, beyond what is given on Audible's site (it is not very extensive), the URL for The Teaching Company is here:

Exploring The Teaching Company's site is also a great way to discover more about those lecture series that they have available on DVD, which you might want to look for at your library.  Or likewise, you can learn more about the audio versions even if you decide not to purchase them from Audible but choose instead to try to procure them from your library.

I hope that my many reading friends, especially those of you who enjoy non-fiction, choose to give The Great Courses a try.  There is something for everyone, and you will, I guarantee it, enjoy every minute you spend with these top scholars as they share their enthusiasm for their various fields of specialization.

Friday, May 31, 2013

THE SENSE OF AN ENDING by Julian Barnes ✰✰✰✰✰

In 163 pages author Julian Barnes sketches a most insightful book on the passage of time and life history.  Using a plot line that begins with four adolescent friends and a few supplemental characters, and telling the tale with the first person intimacy of one of the young men, an evocative reminiscence takes the reader through school days and into late middle age.
Tony Webster is in his sixties when he is left, from an unexpected source, an unusual bequest which causes him to reexamine his life.  In doing so, he brings the reader along through what on the surface seems to be a very ordinary chronicling of a very ordinary life.  However, the reader quickly discovers that while Tony gives all the commendation for life’s deeper moments to others, he is far more discerning than he gives himself credit for.  Through Tony, Julian Barnes funnels some of the most profound components of the human journey, including the lesson that life is seldom as transparent as it appears to be on the surface.

Julian Barnes’s writing is so fabulous that I think I wrote more quotes in my journal than I have from any other book.  Here are a few of my favorites:

He had a better mind and a more rigorous temperament than me; he thought logically, and then acted on the conclusion of logical thought.  Whereas most of us, I suspect, do the opposite: we make an instinctive decision, then build up an infrastructure of reason to justify it.

But time first grounds us and then confounds us.  We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe.  We imagined we were being responsible but were only being cowardly.  What we call realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them.  Time...give us enough time and our best-supported decisions will seem wobbly, our certainties whimsical. (ellipses included in original text)

When you’re young-when I was young-you want your emotions to be like the ones you read about in books.  You want them to overturn your life, create and define a new reality.  Later, I think, you want them to do something milder, something more practical: you want them to support your life as it is and has become.  You want them to tell you that things are OK.  

It is a very, very infrequent occurrence that I say that I think a book is destined to become a classic, but this one bears many of the hallmarks.  The themes of friendship and love, the slide of time that cannot be held in check, and the life elements universal to every generation make this a read that will feel just as relevant to my grandchildren as to me.  I loved this book and recommend it for all readers high school and older.