Tag Archives: Nonfiction

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.

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

Monster of God by David Quammen

Monster of God: The Man-eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind by David Quammen

W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2003

Borrowed from my local library.

A wonderful book by one of my favorite science science writers.  Quammen has given us an in-depth report on a  great struggle in human history.  What do humans do when they find themselves becoming prey and how do we learn to live with those animals who, like us, find themselves at the top of the food web?

…For as long as Homo Sapiens has been sentient-for much longer if you count the evolutionary wisdom stored in our genes-alpha predators have kept us acutely aware of our membership within the natural world.  They’ve done it by reminding us that to them we’re just another flavor of meat…

…While we humans may be the most reflective members of the natural world, we’re not (in my view, anyway) its divinely appointed proprietors.  Nor are we the culmination of evolution, except in the sense that there has never been another species so bizarrely ingenious that it could create both iambic pentameter and plutonium.  (from page 13)

By focusing on four top predators, visiting their home territory and interviewing local scientists, hunters and others about  human contact with those predators, the author reminds us of things we may have forgotten.  What it is like to live in a place where we fear being attacked, injured and possible eaten by the animals that live around us.  How have people managed to live in balance with those animals?  How can we insure their survival as more and more of their territory is destroyed by our need for control?

Asiatic Lions that manage to survive in a tiny area of Western India, Salt water crocodiles in Australia,  Brown Bears in Romania and the Amur Tiger in the wilds of Eastern Russia are featured in a book that blends the history, biology, politics and culture of human-big predator interaction.  One of my favorite parts is Quamman’s explanation  of human exploration and colonization, the “taming of the wilderness”.

     Achieving military victory over the indigenous tribes, whoever they are, is sometimes the easiest part of the whole process.  The land itself, the ecosystem, must be defeated too – or so the invaders think.  The foreign wilderness must be mastered, made tractable, if not utterly subdued and transformed.  That requires, at the lower end of the size scale, coping with pestiferous local microbes and parasites, which sometimes present the fiercest resistance of all.  Malaria certainly slowed the white conquest of Africa.  At the upper end of the scale it means rooting out those big flesh-eating beasts that rule the woods and the rivers and the swamps, that offer moral peril to the unwary, and that hold pivotal significance within the belief systems of the natives.  Kill off the sacred bear.  Kill off the ancestral crocodile.  Kill off the myth-wrapped tiger.  Kill off the lion.  You haven’t conquered a people and their place, until you’ve exterminated their resident monsters. (From page 254)

Another thing I enjoyed about Monster of God was the author’s inclusion of religion and mythology.  All of those monster stories, all of the tales of heroes conquering ravenous beasts and fire-breathing serpents came from somewhere.

Anzu, as know from Babylonian poetry, was a furious lion-headed eagle.  Polyphemus, son of sea god Poseidon, was the cyclops who ate several of Odysseus’ men, scarfed them like shucked crawfish, before Odysseus paid him back with that archetypical affliction, a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.  The Chimera was a fire-snorting goat-lion-snake.  The Sphinx was a sadistic woman-faced lion, who devoured people after teasing them with her stupid riddle.  The Labbu, another formidable Babylonian monster, was 630 miles long, with huge eyelids.  It’s high protein diet included fish, wild asses, birds and people, until Tishpak or some other heroic intervener (the sources are patchy) vanquished it.  The original meaning of the word labbu, by the way, was lion.  (from page 262)

I love this stuff.  And I appreciate the author’s sense of humor when dealing with an issue that have terrified humans since before we stood upright.  Monster of God is a joy to read  and a sobering reminder of our place in the world.

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Filed under Animals, Nature, Nonfiction, Science

The Hopes of Snakes by Lisa Couturier

The Hopes of Snakes & Other Tales from the Urban Landscape by Lisa Couturier

Beacon Press, Boston, 2005

Borrowed from my public library.

This is one of those books I discovered while browsing the shelves.  This collection of  essays written about Couturier’s time spent in New York City and the Washington, DC area, reminds me that the city is, in fact, part of nature and that our ideas of nature are human constructs.  I know this, but it is easy to forget in my day-to-day living.

In essays that range from searching for Canada goose nests on an island in the Arthur Kill to hunting for Coyotes along the Potomac River through Washington D.C., Couturier drew me into her world and reintroduced me to the snakes and crows and foxes that live beside us in our urban habitats.

Her words convey deep respect for the “natural” world, they are filled with hard truths about human behavior.   I found these essays speaking to me, summing up my spiritual philosophy, my personal religion. I loved this wonderful collection.

What if God is the hawk, is the fish in the ocean, the fowl of the air, and every living thing that moveth upon the earth?  What if God is the grass the hawk sat in and the breeze the hawk flew through?  from page 17.

5 Comments

Filed under Animals, Essays, Nature, Nonfiction, Review

Iphigenia in Forest Hills – A Short Review

Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial by Janet Malcolm

Yale University Press, New Haven, 2011

Borrowed from the library.

I first read Malcolm’s report of the murder trial of Mazoltuv “Marina” Borukhova and the man she was accused of hiring to kill her ex-husband, in the New Yorker.  This book is expanded from that article and is  the best depiction, in fiction or nonfiction,  of the ambiguity and uncertainty that takes place in a U.S. court of law that I have read.

A jury trial is supposed to review all the “evidence” in a case and decide what “really happened”,  leading to just decision of guilt or innocence.  Malcolm’s  book make it clear that the structure of a trial, the personalities involved and the media and journalism that surrounds it, can lead to something that feels the opposite of  justice.  This is a fascinating read, one I highly recommend.   I will read other books by Janet Malcolm.

3 Comments

Filed under Culture, Current Events, Litigation, Nonfiction, 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:

Bibliojunkie

Dolce Bellezza

Mystica

The Parrish Lantern

things mean a lot

Thyme for tea


19 Comments

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

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.

8 Comments

Filed under Animals, Memoir, Nature, Nonfiction, Review