Tag Archives: Culture

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

behind the beautiful forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo

Random House, New York, 2012

Borrowed from my local library.

Since I have spent several months reading Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children,  I thought I should read something about present day India.  Katherine Boo’s superb study of life in a Mumbai undercity, like Rushdie’s novel, took my breath away.

Following Abdul, a young garbage sorter, his family and the families and individuals that live in Annawadi, a half acre slum made up of garbage dumps, thrown together shacks and a large sewage pond, Boo spent more then three years living behind the concrete wall that hides this place and its people from the eyes of those traveling to and from the Mumbai airport. Abdul and those around him dream of better lives and, with sweat and ingenuity, begin to gain and edge, only to be thwarted by a corrupt police force and justice system.

     The idea was to get terrified prisoners to pay everything they had, and everything they could secure from a moneylender, to stop a false criminal charge from being recorded.  Beatings, though outlawed in the human rights code, were practical, as they increased the price that detainees would pay for their release. The Indian criminal justice system was a market like garbage, Abdul now understood.  Innocence and guilt could be bought and sold like a kilo of polyurethane bags.  From page 107.

Through observation, with insight and a gentle hand, Ms. Boo brings this place and its people to life.  Their desperately hard work, their desires and their failures are reported with clarity and without judgement.  This is a brilliant piece of journalism.

What was unfolding in Mumbai was unfolding elsewhere, too.  In the age of global market capitalism, hopes and grievances were narrowly conceived, which blunted a sense of common predicament.  Poor people didn’t unite; they competed furiously among themselves for gains as slender as they were provisional.  And this undercity strife created only the faintest ripple in the fabric of society at large.  The gates of the rich, occasionally rattled, remained unbreached.  The politicians held forth on the middle class. the poor took down one another, and the world’s great, unequal cities soldiered on in relative peace.  From page 237.

There is a wonderful interview with Katherine Boo here.


Filed under Culture, Economics, India, Journalism, Nonfiction, Society, Thoughts

Sweet Heaven When I Die by Jeff Sharlet

Sweet Heaven When I Die by Jeff Sharlet

W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2011

Borrowed from my library.

I first heard of Jeff Sharlet when he published a fine article in Harper’s titled Jesus plus nothing.   Five years later that article morphed into a book, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power.  I have been a fan ever since.

With the subtitle Faith, Faithlessness and the Country in Between  Sharlet’s newest book is a collection essays that shines a blinding light on how we, as Americans, find, lose and regain faith.  How we sometimes blindly accept faith with nothing more than a song and a bottle of whiskey to guide us.  There is always a song.

Often compared to writers focusing on life in America, from Mark Twain to Joan Didion,  Sharlet searches along the borders where  our culture and our religion meet,  he is willing to look deep into the mix of religion and politics.   Often driven to the edge he finds himself looking over, into the depths of the American heart.

     …We hope when the odds, no matter how good, are still that: odds, chance, a gamble in which the rules may change at any time,  for any reason, with or without our acquiescence.  We hope when we understand that circumstances are beyond our control, when will is not equal to effect, when we are not the subjects of the story but its objects.  Hope isn’t optimistic;  it’s the face of despair.  My grandmother taught me that, not long before she died.  “Despair,” she said, was her favorite word.  “It’s not a bad thing.  It’s a gift.  A recognition.”  It is the opposite of dread.  Perception, not speculation. You accept the facts of your fate rather than reading them as evidence of a judgement or a moral.  Some people might call that quitting.  From page 249.

I find Jeff  Sharlet’s writing fearless, his honesty inspiring and often his words strike my heart.  I read two blogs that he helped start, The Revealer and Killing the Buddha,  regularly.


Filed under Culture, Essays, Religion, Review

Underground by Haruki Murakami

Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche by Haruki Murakami

Translated from the Japanese by Alfred Birnbaum and Philip Gabriel

Vintage International, New York, 2001

Borrowed from my local Library.

After reading Kafka on the Shore, and not being sure what I thought of Haruki Murakami, I decided to read his book on the 1995  Aum Shinrikyo Tokyo gas attacks.  Murakami says in his introduction that he was motivated to write Underground because he had been living away from Japan, wanted a deeper understanding of his home country and felt an obligation to those who had died in and survived the attack.  He wanted to have their voices heard.

Underground is actually two books that were published separately in 1997 and 1998.   The first part,. Underground, is made up of interviews with survivors of the 1995  attack in the Tokyo subway system, the second part, The Place That Was Promised, contains interviews with people who had been involved with Aum Shinrikyo.

From the interview with Toshiaki Toyoda, a Subway Authority workman.

    There were ordinary passengers who unfortunately lost their lives or suffered injuries just because they were traveling on the subway.  People who are still suffering mentally or are in pain.  When I consider their lot, I don’t have the luxury to keep seeing myself as a victim.  That’s why I say: “I’m not a sarin victim, I’m a survivor.”  Frankly, there are some latent symptoms, but nothing to keep me bedridden.  I’m just glad I survived.

The fear, the mental wounds are still with me, of course, but there is no way to flush them out of my system.  I could never find words to explain it to the families of those who died or sacrificed their lives on the job.  From page 38.

Murakami shows great respect for the people he interviewed, never interfering with their answers and yet drawing them out.  I am deeply impressed by his level of caring and by his commitment to his fellow citizens.  I am also moved by the survivors, their willingness to share their stories and their commitment to their culture and to each other. I find the difference between our two culture profound.

I also really appreciate the depth of Murakami’s intelligence, his clarity of thought and willingness to probe deeply into his own psyche.

From Blind Nightmare: Where Are We Japanese Going?

            …I am a novelist, and as we know a novelist is someone who works with “narratives”, who spins “stories” professionally.  Which meant to me that the task at hand was like a gigantic sword dangling over my head.  It’s something I’m going to have to deal with much more seriously from here on.  I know I’m going to have to construct a “cosmic communication device” of my own.  I’ll probably piece together every last scrap of junk, every weakness, every deficiency inside me to do it.  (There, I’ve gone and said it – but the real surprise is that it’s exactly what I’ve been trying to do as a writer all along!)

So then, what about you? (I’m using the second person, but of course that includes me.)

Haven’t you offered up some part of your Self to someone (or something), and taken on a “narrative” in return?  Haven’t we entrusted some part of our personality to some greater System or Order? And if so, has not that System at some stage demanded of us some kind of “insanity”?  Is the narrative you now possess really and truly your own?  Are your dreams really your own dreams?  Might not they be someone else’s visions that could sooner or later turn into nightmares?  From page 233.

The second part of this book is made up of interviews with people connected to Aum Shinrikyo at the time of the attacks.  It is chilling how easily these people, all of whom seem intelligent and humane, were disconnected from their families, their peers and any sense of empathy or compassion.  They became “mindless” but sincerely thought otherwise.  Read that quote from Blind Nightmare again.

I will definitely read more of Murakami’s work, even as I struggle to make sense of it.

Other reviews:


Dolce Bellezza


The Parrish Lantern

things mean a lot

Thyme for tea


Filed under Culture, History, InTranslation, JapaneseLiteratureChallenge 5, Nonfiction, Review

Sunday Salon – Sharing the Local Harvest

Happy Sunday to you.  The last couple of weeks before school is out find me over-extended and unable to sit down and focus on writing reviews or post for this blog.  My reading has definitely suffered but I di gwt to the library this week.   Things should settle down soon.

In the mean time the weather has turned somewhat spring-like, I have beans, peas and squash coming up in the garden and the neighborhood Farmer’s Markets are open!

Following a friend’s link I discovered this website.  For those of you wanting fresh, locally grown fruits and veggies, or wanting information on farms and CSAs in your area, Local Harvest is a wonderful resource.  Enjoy!


Filed under Culture, Farms, Sunday Salon

Writing On The Edge: Great Contemporary Writers on the Front Line of Crisis by Tom Craig

Writing On The Edge: Great Contemporary Writers on The Front Line of Crisis

By Tom Craig, Edited by Dan Crowe

Published in association with Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres

Rizzoli, New York, 2010

Tom Craig, a documentary photographer, wanted to do something more than just take pictures.  He wanted people to tell the stories behind the pictures.  He invited authors to join him on trips to some of the most dangerous places in the world, and they said yes.

Things were elemental.  I knew it was cold in Armenia when the piss in our toilets froze, and I knew it was hot in Chad when the donkey next to me dropped dead like a cartoon cutout.  I knew I was frightened when I wanted my mum, and I knew I was doing the right thing when I overheard a girl on a bus in London crying as she described one of our stories in The Sunday Times Magazine. I learned that war was pointless, and that bad water kills nearly everyone, and if that didn’t get you the mosquitoes did.  I learned things about myself I could never have understood without the hardship and death I witnessed, or the instances of human fortitude and kindness I observed.  This is where hope comes in.  From the introduction by Tom Craig.

Some very fine writers  joined him on journeys to medical outposts set up by Medecins Sans Frontieres, in places far out on the borders of human existence.  Places like Burudi, Palestine, Cambodia and Congo.  People like Martin Amis, Tracy Chevalier, Hari Kunzru and Ali Smith.  They took these journeys and wrote about what they experienced.   These essays, along with Craig’s photographs, are gathered in this collection.

I picked this up off the “new book” shelf in my library,  not really knowing about it but intrigued by the names listed on the cover.  The essays are astounding, the photos are beautiful and disturbing.  Sometimes I just need something to help me get out of my own little bubble.  This book does that.


Filed under Culture, Current Events, Nonfiction, Photography

Color Me Brown Book Challenge

zeeSusan at Black-eyed Susan and Color Online has issued a challenge to majority bloggers to read and review books written by people of color.  The challenge runs through the end of August and there will be a random drawing for prizes.  If you have difficulty getting books Susan has made many available at Color Online. I’m joining the challenge and hope you will too.

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Burma Chronicles by Guy DeLisle

Burm72d6c4c9a86743c593745575551434d414f4541Burma Chronicles by Guy DeLisle

Drawn and Quarterly, Montreal, Quebec,2008

This wonderful graphic travelogue tells the story of Delisle’s trip to Burma, also know as Myanmar.  Delisle’s wife works for Medecins Sans Frontieres ( Doctors Without Borders) and she, Delisle and their son, Louis, are stationed in Burma for a year.

DeLisle uses simple black, white and gray scale drawings to tell a whimsical tale that includes some cultural and political insight into this beautiful, troubled country.  He shares his time with Louis’s playgroup and his experiences teaching an animation class.  There are also stories of his travels into the countryside with the MSF team.  I loved the simple storytelling style and the clear, clean images.

This is DeLisle’s third book after Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China and Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea.  I intend to read both of them as soon as I can get them from my library!


Filed under Challenges, Graphic Novel Challenge, Graphic Novels, Review

Finding Beauty In A Broken World by Terry Tempest Williams

Finding Beauty in a Broken World by Terry Tempest Williams


Pantheon Books, New York, 2008

First of all,  I need to say that Terry Tempest Williams is a hero of mine.  I have felt that way since reading  Refuge and that admiration doubled after she wrote The Open Space of Democracy, published by The Orion Society.  I find her writing lyrical, beautiful and filled with strength.

When I first started reading Finding Beauty in a Broken World I was not sure where it was going.  What was the author doing in Ravenna,Italy,  learning an ancient art form?  I found I wasn’t letting myself really take in what Williams was saying.  I had to stop and start over, bringing the attention to the words that Williams asks of her readers.  Then I got it and had to take it in like a cool drink after a long, hot hike.

Mosaics are made of things that are beautiful and broken, much like human beings.    Williams creates a mosaic of words, bringing together disparate ideas, her travels to Italy, the fragility of a Prairie Dog populations and the struggles Rawanda faces after genocide.  There is much sadness and suffering here and yet, through the work of human hands, the same hands that are so capable of destruction, something lovely is built and healing can begin.

The author shows us stories from her own life, tells of her own fear, her own breaking apart through personal and national loss.  It is a beautiful, difficult book and. in the end, miraculous.

“We cannot understand social problems without looking at historical roots.  It is impossible to change society without changing the societal stories.  We must listen to the stories being told on the ground by those who have survived the abuses of power, those who bear witness and embody the resiliency of the human spirit.  And resiliency is what I see in Rawanda.” from page 285

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Filed under Culture, Nonfiction, Review