Category Archives: Memoir

Between The World And Me

25147754Between The World And Me

by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Spiegel & Grau, New York, 2016

I own it.

There is only one thing I have to say about this book.  Please read it, then sit with what you read, then read it again.

Here is a link to some quotes.

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Filed under American History, Memoir, Racism

A Rift in Time by Raja Shehadeh

A Rift in Time by Raja Shehadeh

OR Books, NY, 2011

Borrowed from my public library.

Raja Shehadeh was awarded the Orwell Prize for his book Palestinian Walks, which I read a couple of years ago.  I have to thank Stu at Winstonsdad’s Blog for introducing me to A Rift in Time.  Stu posted a wonderful interview with Shehadeh here.

When Raja Shehadeh, a human rights lawyer and author living in Ramallah, started digging into his family history he discovered a great uncle who was also an author.   Najib Nassar, who lived in Palestine, under the control of the Ottoman Empire, during the beginning of the 20th was a supporter of that empire and let it be known that he opposed the participation in World War One.  A death sentence was issued and he was forced to leave his home and family and live on the run, relying on strangers, for three years.

Raja traces Najib’s footsteps, running up against political boundaries that didn’t exist during his Uncle’s journey.

The land is now the outcome of a planned vision that has been in the making since the start of the twentieth century, an ideological dream that has been forcibly realised, transforming the land, redividing it, changing farming methods an exploiting every plot available, redistributing it all on an entirely new basis…Najib was one of the first people to pay attention to what was going on, to try to describe it, to warn about its consequences for the arab community and to document it.  From page 38.

Following the Great Rift from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea, along the Bekka and the Jordan Valley, Raja discovers that it is nearly impossible to travel from the walled in state that Palestine has become.  Most of the country’s history, and the people’s lives and memories, are buried in the ground, destroyed by the ever spreading state of Israel.

Gone is the mix of  people that existed in Najib’s time.  In their place a large variety of Jews from Arab countries, Eastern Europe and from the west, along with those Palestinian Arabs who managed to stay, now share the land unequally.  But gone are most of the Bedouin tribes, Palestinian Arabs and Arabs from various parts of north Africa and the marsh Arabs who lived in the Huleh region with their water buffalos that are now extinct here.  From page 44.

Following Najib’s route is impossible so Raja makes do as best he can.  Along the way he visits lost villages, places erased from maps, and talks to people who retain memories and carry stories of the past.  Raja follows Najib’s trail and travels into Lebanon to learn more about his Mother’s family.  He find’s that Najib

One beautiful thing I took away from this heartfelt book is the fact that the Great Valley runs unimpeded from Lebanon, down through the Arabian Peninsula, across the Red Sea and into Africa, to the place were our earliest ancestors began to walk upright.  It is a wonder to read of those who still believe we can tear down the boundaries that separate us and live in peace.

The best antidote to the claustrophobia we Palestinians feel while attempting to cross the many borders Israel has created is to focus our attention on the physical expanse of the land.  Israel is attempting to define the terrain, to claim and fragment it with wire fences, signposts, gates and roadblocks staffed by armed soldiers backed up by tanks.  I am but one of the millions of travellers who have passed through over the ages.  I lifted my eyes and beheld the wonderful valley created eons ago as it stretches far and long, north into Lebanon and south to the Red Sea and Africa, utterly oblivious of the man-made borders that come and go.  From page 55.

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Filed under Current Events, History, Memoir, Nonfiction, Palestine

Tales of an African Vet by Dr. Roy Aronson

Tales of an African Vet by Dr. Roy Aronson

Lyons Press, Guilford, CT, 2011

Dr. Aronson sent me an email asking if I would be interested in reading and reviewing his book.  I jumped at the chance, so he had the publisher send me a copy.

Dr. Roy Aronson is a veterinarian living in Capetown, South Africa.  Besides his normal work with dogs, cats and other more exotic pets he has had many opportunities to treat African wildlife on  farms, ranches and private game reserves.  Along the way he has met and worked with very special vets and wild animal experts.

This small, quiet book is filled with tales of  treating different kinds of animals, from wolf-dog hybrids to lions, snakes and elephants.  Each chapter describes the ranch or reserve where Aronson, sometime with his wife Kathy, also a vet, does this difficult and dangerous work.  Sometimes it involves sedating a lioness to facilitate an operation on her eyelid, at other times it involved rangers rescuing a baby elephant from a mud hole, finding a home for him and raising him by hand.

Aronson’s tone is clear and direct.  He writes about the problems African animals face in the wild, hunting, poaching and human habitation being some of them.  He also describes the good work many people do to mitigate these problems.  It is heartening to read that wildlife habitat is actually increasing as people who own land choose to turn it into wildlife parks and reserves.

…There is a clear line between human habitat and the wild area occupied by animals.  It is a line that is often crossed.  We venture into nature, and sometimes wild animals enter into our domain.  Whenever there is a clash between wild animals and us or our pets, there should be respect.  With respect there can be coexistence.  Without it, there can only be tragedy.  We are the intruders here.  We have occupied the mountainside.  We are also the so-called intelligent species.  It is up to us to set the example of how to cohabit with other species.  If we do this with sensitivity, then we will all survive.  If we do this without it, then our fellow inhabitants of this planet will be harmed, and we will be the poorer for it.  From page 162.

I was happy to receive this book and thoroughly enjoyed reading it.  I would love to pass it on to someone in the US who would like to read and review it.  If you are interested please leave a comment with your email address.

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Filed under Animals, Memoir, Nature, Nonfiction, Review

In An Antique Land – Amitav Ghosh

In An Antique Land,  History in the Guise of a Traveler’s Tale by Amitav Ghosh

Vintage, New York, 1992

I own this, found it in a thrift shop.   Amitav Ghosh is a favorite of mine,  and with the events in Egypt and the rest of the Middle East over the last few months I decided it was time to read it.

In An Antique Land is an interesting combination of history, sociology and memoir that reaches back into the twelfth century and connects it to our own time.

In the winter of 1978 Ghosh was studying for a degree in social anthropology at Oxford when he came across a book of translations titled Letters of Medieval Jewish Traders by Professor S.D. Goitein.  The letters came from storage chamber known as the Geniza, attached to an ancient synagogue in Cairo.  One of them, catalogue number MS H.6, was written in  1146 AD  by a merchant named Khalaf ibn Ishaq to a trader named Abraham Ben Yijû.  At that time Ben Yiyû was living in Mangalore, on the south-western coast of India.  The letter mentions a certain slave and sends him “plentiful greetings”.

Ghosh was hooked and soon found himself in Tunisia, learning Arabic.  In 1980 he traveled to Egypt, living in a small village called Lataifa, and getting to know the Egyptian people.

From there the author traveled to another Egyptian village, Nashawy and then on to Mangalore, India, living with and getting to know the people in the towns and villages.  He was attempting to track the travels of  Ben Yijû and of his slave, a man Ghosh began to think of as Bomma.

What I found most fascinating was the interweaving of the time lines, Egypt and the Middle East in the 1100’s and in the late twentieth century, the mingling of history and social anthropology, Ghosh’s openness with the people around him and his awareness of the pressures of modernization.  I admire his observation skills and his clarity.  Here is his description of the village during Ramadan.  He had wanted to join in but everyone had said he could not – he was not Muslim.

From the very first day of the lunar month the normal routines of the village had undergone a complete change: it was as though a segment of time had been picked from the calendar and turned inside out.  Early in the morning, a good while before sunrise, a few young men would go from house to house waking everyone for the suhûr, the early morning meal. After that, as the day progressed, a charged lassitude would descend upon Lataifa.  To ease the rigours of the fast people would try to finish all their most pressing bits of work early in the morning. while the sun was still low in the sky; it was impossible to do anything strenuous on an empty stomach and parched throat once the full heat of the day had set in.  By noon the lanes of the hamlet would be still, deserted.  The women would be in their kitchens and oven-rooms, getting their meals ready for the breaking of the fast at sunset.  The men would sit in the shade of trees, or in their doorways, fanning themselves.  Their mouths and lips would sometimes acquire thin white crusts, and often, as the hours wore on, their tempers would grow brittle.  From page 75.

Ghosh threads history throughout this memoir, how the trading in Northern Africa was dependent on many items from India.  How people worked, traveled and lived.  How even the word “slave” had a very different meaning during that time. Reading this book was a  reminder of  how that  area of the world was once,  peacefully, inhabited by people of different races and religions.  Why did that change?  As he reaches the end of his journey along the west coast of India, Ghosh presents a theory.

The journey ends on a beach between ‘Fandarîna’ and Calicut, at a small fishing-village, hidden behind the shelter of a sand-dune.  It is a quiet spot: a few catamarans and fishing-boats lie in a great crescent of sand, a vast beach that is usually empty, except when fishing boats come in.  The village is called Kappkadavu an on one side of it beside the road is a worn white marker which tells the passer-by that this was where Vasco da Gama landed, on his first voyage to India, on 17 May 1498 – some three hundred and fifty years after Ben Yiyû left Mangalore.

Within a few years of that day the knell had been struck for the world that brought Bomma, Be Yiyû and Ashu together, and another age had begun in which the crossing of their paths would seem so unlikely that its very possibility would all but disappear from human memory.  From page 286.

There is an  interesting connection between this author’s fascination with the slave Bomma, the historical trading  between India and Northern Africa and his novel Sea of Poppies. I cannot wait for the second book in the Ibis Trilogy, River of Smoke.

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Filed under History, Memoir, Review

The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss

By Edmund de Waal

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2010

Borrowed from the library.  I may have first read about this on the Guardian website, then Nancy Pearl’s comments on NPR made it a must read.

What really drew me to this book was the collection of netsuke that is at the center of the story.  When I lived in Cambridge I used to visit the Boston Museum of Fine Art and became totally enthralled by the tiny carvings in the Asian collection.

Having inherited a collection of  264 netsuke that has been in his family since the 1870s, Edmund de Waal decides to find out where these wonderful objects came from, who has owned them and where they have been kept.  He has written a memoir about the Ephrussi family, drawn from interviews,  journals, memoirs, newspaper clippings and history book that starts with a great-great uncle who lived in Paris. The Hare with Amber Eyes reads as if De Waal had lived through all this history,  shared meals with these people, visited art galleries.  He has gotten to know them.

Though the Japanese were extremely rare in Paris in the 1870s – there were delegations and diplomats and the odd prince – their art was ubiquitous.  Everyone had to get their hands on these japonaiseries:  all the painters Charles was starting to meet in the salons, all the writers Charles knew from the Gazette, his family his family friends, his lover, all were living through this convulsion.  Fanny Ephrussi records in her letters shopping trips to Mitsuu, a fashionable shop in rue Martel that sold Far Eastern objects, to buy Japanese wallpaper for the new smoking-room a guest bedrooms in the house that she and Jules had just finished building in the place d’Iena.  How could Charles, the critic, the well-dressed amateur d’art and collector, not buy Japanese art.  From pages 48/49.

De Waal, an artist who works in porcelain, takes just as much care with this story as he does with his artwork.  This is his family and he treats them with honesty, care and respect.  Some of this history is sweet and rich like a fine pastry, some of it is filled with horror and loss.

It is on this visit that I go to the Jewish archive in Vienna, the one seized by Eichmann, to check up on the details of the marriage.  I look through the ledger to find Viktor, and there is an official red stamp across his first name.  It reads “Israel”.  An edict decreed that all Jews had to take new names.  Someone has gone through every single name in the lists of Viennese Jews and stamped them`Israel’ for the men, `Sara’ for the women.

I am wrong.  The family is not erased, but written over.  And, finally, it is this that makes me cry.  From page 259.

But it is De Waal’s passionate love of these objects and the tactile sensations his wonderful writing brought to my reading that makes this book a favorite for 2010.  Edwurd de Waal is an artist, he builds objects with his hands, he has built a beautiful memoir with words, tender and filled with love.

You take an object from your pocket and put it down in front of you and you start.  You begin to tell a story.

When I hold them I find myself looking for the wear, the fine cracks that run alongside the grain of some of the ivories.  It is not just that I want the split in these wrestlers – a tangle of hopelessly thrashing ivory limbs – to have come from being dropped onto Charles’s golden carpet of the winds by someone famous ( a poet, a painter, Proust) in a moment of fin-de-siècle excitement.  Or that the deeply ingrained dust lodged under the wings of a cicada resting on a walnut shell comes from being hidden in a Viennese mattress.  It probably doesn’t.  From page 349.

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Filed under Art, History, Memoir, Review

The Music Room by William Fiennes

fien0330444409.01._SX140_SY225_SCLZZZZZZZ_ The Music Room by William Fiennes

Picador USA, New York, 2009

Borrowed from my local library.

In September I read and reviewed  The Snow Geese by William Fiennes.   I loved it so much I wanted to read his new book.

The Music Room is memoir written in narrative style.  It is the story of the house, actually a castle, where Fiennes grew up.  It is also a tribute to his brother, Richard.  Richard, eleven years older than William and suffering from epilepsy, was the family’s emotional center as well as it’s focus, but never in a way that detracted from anyone else.

The Music Room describes the great house, part of which was open to the public, and the people who cared for it.

Mid-morning, they came into the kitchen for coffee.  I’d last seen them passing through the door to the public side: it seemed they lived in that other world of portraits, plaster ceilings, suits of armour, swords.  In the corner, under domed wire-gauze fly guards that hung on nails like fencing masks, Joyce sat on her high stool, feet on the rung.  The kitchen was her domain.  She put a pan og milk on the hob, a china puck sitting in the bottom to stop it boiling over, and made milky coffee for Mrs Upton, Mrs Green and Mrs Dancer, and hot chocolate for Bert, who arrived with the cut-grass smell on him, unhitching his dentures so his teeth floated out towards me on his tongue.  By half-past ten they’d have gathered in the kitchen, Joyce perched on her stool like a tennis umpire, a bowl of cake mixture in her lap while Mrs Upton, Mrs Green, Bert and Mrs Dancer too sat round the green Formica table, delving into the Victoria biscuit tin, Joyce like a mother hen presiding over her chicks, providing for them.

If I wasn’t at school, I’d sit with them.

“How old do you think I am?” Mrs Dancer asked.

“I don’t know,”

“I’m about the same age as my tongue and a little bit older than my teeth.”  from page 39.

This house is filled with history, the people who live and work there have lots of stories to tell.  There are all sorts of events held on the grounds,fairs, concerts and festivals.  Sometimes film crews show up, bringing with them actor and other interesting people.  Fiennes tells of the history of the land and of the house.

But the book is also an accurate description of the difficulties of  living with someone who suffers from epilepsy that has caused brain damage, the ups and downs of an illness that has no cure.  Fiennes intersperses his narrative with the history of the study of electricity and its effects on the brain, including the famous story of Mr. Phineas Gage.  He also includes descriptions of Richard’s bouts with anger, depression and lack of impulse control, and the amazing patience and love shown him by his parents.  I am awed by the graceful way Richard was accepted and included in their lives.

Whenever he was fully engaged in some physical task, his tongue dropped in front of his bottom teeth and pushed out his cheek below the corner of his mouth like a wad of dentist cotton wool.  Certain epilepsy drugs can cause unusual facial movements called extra-pyramidal movements, and for a while Richards pills caused him to circle his jaw unconsciously, as if he were chewing a cud, his lower lip enlarged and blubbery.   Now his tongue already probing his cheek in concentration, he leaned into the branches, fitted the blade and wrestled the saw back and forth until there  was only an inch of trunk intact.  We heard the first splinter-cracks as the tree teetered.  From page 61.

The Music Room is also filled with images of being a child and an adolescent  in such an amazing place, with such a challenging brother. Fiennes describes the private and the public spaces.  I had great fun just imagining an eight year old boy with free run of a castle, it even has a moat!

I start to look for ways of being alone, self-reliant, away from Richard and my parents.  I want, even within the circle of the moat, to be beyond observation.  So I disappear into the Barracks or out onto the castle’s roofs, scrambling across leads and stone slates, settling in secret enclosures like pockets among dunes, rooks crossing overhead between the worm-rich park and their rendezvous trees. From page 152

This little book is a loving  tribute to Fiennes’s brother and his family.  I found it very well written, lyrical and a bit melancholy.  I enjoyed it,  and look forward to other books by this fine British author.

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Filed under Memoir, Nonfiction

Stitches by David Small

small023a1064e93a4e55932464d5667434d414f4541Stitches: A Memoir by David Small

W.W.Norton and Company, New York, 2009

Borrowed from the library.

Stitches is an extraordinary memoir presented in graphic format.  David Small, an award winning children’s book author and illustrator,  has written and drawn a story that covers his life from babyhood to adolescence.

The graphics are pen and ink and ink wash, beautiful, dark and sad.  As with most parents, David’s Mother and Father thought they were doing their best.  Small illustrates the trauma and pain of childhood is a way that moves from reality to dream to nightmare, without being overly dramatic.  David Small’s story is intense but well told and his notes at the end reflect back on his parent’s lives in a very kind and loving way.

This book is turning up on many “Best Books of the Year” lists and the recognition is well deserved.  There are many fine reviews out there.  Here are a few:

Bermudaonion’s Weblog

Boston Bibliophile

Regular Ruminations

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Filed under Graphic Novels, Memoir, Review