Reading Around the World: Philippines My Faraway Home by Mary McKay Maynard

The Story

Before business went global after World War II, the people who were mostly sent to interesting places like the Philippines were either diplomats, bankers, mining or other engineers or missionaries.  Author Mary McKay Maynard is the daughter of an American mining engineer who was working  for a mining company in the Philippines when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor causing the U.S. entry into World War II.  Mary and her parents were trapped.

Even though her father had been reassured by General MacArthur personally that there was no reason to flee the islands, the family and several others were trapped. Then a child of elementary school age, who had once been a playmate of MacArthur’s young son, Arthur,  Mary tells the story of her family’s time in a remote mining facility in a true jungle. Along with several other Americans and other expatriates, the group hung on, making do, hoping they were remote enough that the Japanese would ignore them.

The story is also told thru entries in her mother’s diary.  The family’s courage and resourcefulness helped them to hold out away from Japanese internment even as others in their small community abandoned the remote location.

My Thoughts

This book is exactly why I love memoirs and first-hand accounts even more than fiction. While Mary was telling the story through a child’s eyes her mother’s diary entries revealed far more of the emotional strain and personal hardship that the family endured. This was a very compelling book.

Rating

4 stars

Interviews With the Author

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For a local newspaper’s interview, click here.

To Listen to NPR’s Bob Edward’s talk with Mary McKay Maynard about her family’s ordeal

NPR Interview

 

 

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Reading Around the World: Laos: The Latehomecomer by Kao Kalia Yang

What Made Me Choose This Book

Memoirs are a staple in my reading life. I enjoy hearing how other people have lived their lives. I especially enjoy memoirs of challenges. When I discovered a memoir of a Hmong girls growing up as a refugee in the United States, I knew I’d enjoy it–how ever harrowing the tale. And, I was right.

In the mid 1980s I worked with a large number of resettled refugees from the Vietnam war–including a few Hmong. The circle of refugees came from Vietnam itself and from Cambodia and Laos. They started over. Their children, and the young adult refugees, fared best. They took the traditional path to success–math and science. Engineering in the case of most of these refugees. College spots that American students at that time weren’t eager to fill at what was then a branch campus of  a state university. Nearly all found career success.

So, I started the Latehomecomer with a small amount of first-hand exposure to this group of refugees, a few of whom I kept up with somewhat until about 2000 when the ties became too tenuous, the memories of common experiences too old. They had mostly scattered from that city by then, as I had.

The Latehomecomer Story

Kao Kalia Yang’s family was part of a group of refugees arriving a little later than my former co-workers. Like so many Hmong in America they landed in Minneapolis/Saint Paul, Minnesota–a world light years from their one-time home in Laos. Part of an ethic minority in Laos, where they were badly treated, Hmong communities would be mistreated and often viewed with hostility in their new country, the USA, as well. Happily for the author, her parents tried to focus their children on the opportunities of America, instead of the short comings and out-right cruelties. In her case, after problems in school at first,  it worked well. She ended up going to prestigious Carleton College, one of nation’s most selective Liberal Arts colleges.

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In addition to the family’s own story, the book also relates a few tales from Hmong folklore told by the author’s elderly grandmother. They make it possible to understand the worldview or mindset that the family and other Hmong brought with them to America–the lens through which they viewed American life upon arrival. They also help us to understand the Hmong culture which is often viewed with mistrust by Americans.

Finally, there  is a vivid recounting of the Hmong funeral which lasts for days and involves just about anyone who wants to show up. The grocery list alone was staggering–the number of beef cattle and chickens slaughtered alone was amazing. The rights themselves were a folklorist’s dream to witness, even just in words.

Rating

3.5

I found the folklore a bit trying. Sadly, I just couldn’t get that interested in it. I was engrossed, though, in the story of their day-to-day life of trying to succeed in America. In Peace Corps, I too, had to hit the ground running with support similar to theirs. Her writing is incredibly evocative–I felt I was “there” throughout the entire book. I especially wanted to sample some of the incredible food she described here and there in the book.

I recommend this to anyone, but especially to those who may be concerned about refugees or who have a sizeable Hmong community nearby.

Interview

Here is an interesting interview with the author.

Book Trailer

Review: Selection Day by Aravind Adiga: Reading Around the World: India

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Cricket is a sport no American understands unless, like the late William F. Buckley or Ted and Bobby Kennedy, they were forced to attend a British public (private) school. So, it’s no surprise that a book on cricket was hidden under a cover design that mimics other recent successful diverse or international novels while the rest of the world was given cricket on the cover.

You know, it’s often said that Indians have two real religions, the cinema – Bollywood – and cricket. It’s the equivalent of sort of baseball, basketball, football and Christmas put together. The question is not why cricket. The question is how you can escape cricket in India.                      (Aravind Adiga on NPR)

One of the strangest legacies of British colonialism is cricket. Many countries in the British Commonwealth (i.e. former Empire) play cricket–though Canada isn’t one of them. India has made cricket, as the quote above says, into a religion–a national obsession, like hockey in Canada or the NBA in America. Never mind in the bygone days of the Raj, Indians would only have been allowed into the Cricket Club as waiters or cleaners. Today it is truly their game.

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The Good

Happily, you don’t have to understand a thing about cricket to read the book. Other than understanding that it goes on for ever and that a Century is a good thing to earn for your team, you can just lalalala thru any action. The focus isn’t so much on the game as on the behind-the-scenes.

Radha and Maju Kumar are the sons of an itinerant chutney salesman living in a poor area of Mumbai, India. Cricket is the fast track to prosperity for all of them and their father has raised them to be the best. (Think NBA straight from high school and you have an idea how this will go.) His peculiar methods of “training” his sons include examining their genitalia and regulating their diet. Both boys have done little in life except go to school and then practice cricket. “Selection Day” is like the NFL or NBA draft. Since no one has the insanity of college-to-pros that the USA has, the selection is for “junior” teams. So imagine being drafted in Middle School for, say, the Junior Detroit Pistons, or the Junior Dallas Cowboys. You get the idea.

The talent is there. Getting selected is another story–a story of corruption. (Think inner city basketball players being recruited by excellent suburban schools and helped to move). The Chutney Salesman (the father) goes all out to get his sons into sponsorship that will lead to selection. But Tommy Sir, as he’s known, isn’t the most scrupulous guy around. He sponsors the boys then, in a way, pits them against each other. The result is ugly.

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I found the story of corruption in cricket very interesting. I’ve read a few things on cricket for one of my novels and found that not everyone likes the way televised cricket especially is going. It can be played in “pajamas” as the newly allowed bright-colored uniforms are mockingly called (like tennis, once upon a Wimbledon, cricket has historically been played in long white trousers and white shirts with team blazers, caps and tennis-style sweaters only betraying team colors). Critics say it’s being made over into baseball for television. In fact, baseball, is teased about in the story.

Oh, my Darling, my Cricket. Phixed and Phucked (p. 143)

But with two teenage boys and an odd father, you know there’s more to the story. In addition to Radha’s desire to study chemistry and be a CSI investigator like those on his favorite imported t.v. show, there are is the story of another boy. Enter wealthier, suburban cricketer, J.A. His life is worlds away from that of the brothers–in more ways than just economically. The coming-of-age part of the story centers around his homosexuality and the sexual coming-of-age of the brothers–especially Manthu.

The Bad

After about midway I found the novel disappointing in many ways. Coming-of-age stories are a favorite of mine and this one, with the added element of taboo sexual preference should have been interesting. Sadly, this part of the story didn’t go well. J.A. is not the most likable of characters. Exploration of sexuality is a normal and expected part of growing up. J.A. though was spoiled and manipulative. I disliked the boys’ father, loathed Tommy Sir and didn’t really like the way this part of the story went.

Conclusion

I enjoyed the look into Indiana life and into the country’s obsession for cricket. I love any book that shows normal, daily life in another country and this part of the book did not disappoint. I could feel, smell, taste India the way Adiga portrayed it. It makes me want to visit the country even more. I will definitely read more from this author.

Verdict: Three Stars

You can read a transcript of the author’s NPR interview here.

Reading The Globe: Dominican Republic: How The Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents

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My Thoughts on This Book

 

This is a not-so-typical immigrant-slash-coming-of-age story aimed mostly at young adults. I did skip one story-line that bothered me. Overall, I enjoyed this one. Cross-cultural experiences always hold my attention, and immigrant stories are among the most interesting. This was very well written. How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarz. [This review was originally published on my old blog on July 23, 2013.]

A few of my favorite quotes from this book:

 

“…his eyes lidded with hopefulness….”

“…how we lie to ourselves when we fall in love with the wrong man….”

How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez

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Reading Around the World: Iceland

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Before finding this book thru a mention of the author’s work on another blog, all I knew about Iceland was that it was somehow related to Norway, their economy tanked badly about a decade ago and they knit those fabulous sweaters and make those white-ish coats–both fashions that were popular in the 80s if I remember correctly. I had a professor who did his PhD on the Anglo-Icelandic Cod War–God knows why I remember that! I think there were SALT or START talks in Reykjavik–maybe with Jimmy Carter and Brezhnev? I have never knowingly met anyone from Iceland, but a friend worked for many years with a doctor from there, so I knew their naming convention–how they arrive at their “surname” or last name, was quite different from that of Americans.

Here are a few things I learned:

  1. Icelanders, like Americans, drive everywhere and in big cars.
  2. Everyone goes to school until 20–but they start out with several years of preschool in which they play. I like the play part–much, much better than the drill and kill in our preschools and pre-K/K today. Here’s a great blog post (different author) on Icelandic Preschool–it goes well with the discussions in the book. That’s just fyi in case your book club wants to read this!
  3. Their dietary staples are potatoes and dairy–including buttermilk. Protein comes mostly from fish especially haddock  (understandable) and lamb. They traditionally have preserved certain foods in whey. I’ve never encountered that before.
  4. They used to eat cod liver oil on bread, not because they liked it, but because it had to be to survive. They got used to it.
  5. There are live, active volcanoes and there was an eruption while the author was living there in 2007.
  6. There are people there who believe in Elves–not the cute little Ernie from Keebler or those silly garden gnomes, but huge trolls. They figure into the tourist trade nicely.
  7. Everyone learns to knit in school and many continue throughout life. They knit “openly” in meetings–just like Eleanor Roosevelt and Lilian Gilbreth (“Cheaper by the Dozen”) did  back in the day.
  8. In spite of it “seeming” safer than many other countries, Iceland, possibly due to the long winters,  alcohol, and the tanked-economy, has a very high domestic violence rate that isn’t well known.
  9. Children have freedom to do things without hovering, micro-managing parents. Babies in prams are left outside shops and restaurants routinely. No one bothers them.
  10. Sadly, when the main highway was built it created ghost towns of places that depended on the supply boats coming. Many cannot be reached by road and the boats stopped after the switch was made to trucking supplies.

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Reykjavik

The author, Sarah Moss, is a professor of English from the U.K. who took leave to work in Iceland. She and her husband and two young sons would have enjoyed staying in Iceland, but could not afford it on the salary. Sadly, this colored her views on things. She is very opinionated on the wastefulness of Icelanders in their big houses and big cars. She complains that no one uses public transportation or walks when the weather allows. Cycling isn’t popular either, to her regret. She finds it difficult to locate second hand goods (apparently she didn’t ask the right people or try Facebook or something). She’s a fairly typical expatriate in this regard–not understanding why people “abroad” don’t do as they do “at home.”

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Her harping on such things, plus her total disregard for the culinary culture, economy and logistics of bringing in fresh fruit and veggies got old.  I also thought she should have gone on the trip her husband wanted, but that’s another matter. She seems like she really is a very decent–and often fun person to know and work with. Her complaints are the kind of things that rankle when anyone lives abroad (I know some similar things got to me in Malawi).

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The two most interesting things to me where the knitting and their approach to charity. Everyone learns to knit in school and even men knit in adulthood. But those sweaters I love? There’s no ancient tradition at all! They’re post war! Who knew?  Several of the author’s Icelandic co-workers made themselves such sweaters just to prove to themselves they could–just like a lot of people approach crafts here. That was fun. FYI: There are organized knitting tours in Iceland! Now THAT I’d love, especially this Hiking and Knitting Between Fire and Ice tour next August! But I digress–these weren’t in the book!

With the economy falling apart, many people lost jobs and it became very difficult to pay foreign-currency bank loans for houses and cars. A friend arranged for her to visit a charity that gave out food boxes. Icelanders don’t line up. They honor the order in which people arrived just fine, but they stand apart at bus stops, in stores or anywhere else that a line would form. Most found it hard to believe that people were starving because they wouldn’t admit there were problems. A further issue was that many “foreigners” were getting charity–even if those “foreigners” had been there for a long time and weren’t really that foreign.  That, sadly, is often the case today.

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Overall I enjoyed the book, but had no interest in the Elves–aside from how they are co-opted into Christmas. I was far more interested in daily life and societal norms than in folklore. As a follow-up, I plan to read at least one of the author’s novels.

Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland by Sarah Moss

Want to learn more? Check out this fun Book Riot post on Iceland: A Country of Bibliophiles

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Reading Around the World: Gaza, Palestine and the State of Israel

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After the birth of the modern nation state of Israel, life changed dramatically for the Palestinians–the Arabs living in what is today Israel. Most Arabs were forced into what could be called “reservations” or “ghettos” of settlement with all  the connotations that such areas bring to mind.This is the life of the Baraka family who are forced to relocate to a refugee camp in the Gaza strip.

Susan Abulhawa’s novel, The Blue Between Sky and Water tells this extended family’s story through interwoven stories, a comatose prophet and both pathos and humor. Here we see the “other side” of the Israel story. The lives of stateless refugees forced to leave homes of sometimes ancient holding and reform their lives in a sealed off area with limited access to electricity, water, food, medical care, jobs and education. We learn of the smuggling tunnels that became a routine part of their lives. We see family members flung far to suffer the fate of international refugees. And, thru the young woman Nur, we see if thru the eyes of an American who must come to terms with her new reality. This was the one part of the story I didn’t buy. She never got mad. I suppose we were to see that as the result of the grinding down of her spirit in admittedly culturally insensitive foster care in the States.

At first I found the story confusing–I did not understand that some was foretold. This review is a huge help. I don’t say that to put anyone off–this is a superb book, I personally just started out confused. A little “mind-mapping” would have helped me. Once oriented, I had to read it in small doses–the emotion was that great.

I loved that the book shows the way women everywhere must get on with daily life. We wives, mothers, sisters, daughters, grandmothers, female neighbors, must do the work of keeping the family going regardless of where we live. I can picture women gathered around the communal bread oven,  or washing clothes or preparing the large meals necessary for such extended families. I can see the squabbles–petty and large–and love the way it is reflected in the women’s often Earthy-humor:

“…they gossiped about the evil bitches [daughters-in-law] and their husbands who were willing to ‘sell their mother for a wife’s p@ss!.'” (Kindle location 3391).

They complain about men and they detest, though accept, plural marriage. It is these comments that remind me how we are all women–all the same, regardless of clothing, style of worship, beliefs or skin color even while living in the “wreckage of nostalgia that paved refugee camps.” (Kindle location 407). But they clung resignedly to the knowledge that “Allah never gives us more despair than we can handle.” (Kindle location 3218)

The prophet in the story recalls:

“I was there with the women of my life. I was in the colors in the mulberries, magentas, and corals of a tired sun. In the blue between sky and water. I was there, watching. Their conversations and laughter anchored the ground in place, tucked the shore under the water, hung the sky and decorated it with stars and moon and sun. (Kindle location 4323)

But the men in this book are not tyrants–they are simply men in a world where men spend their time with men and women spend their time with women. They love their children, honor their families, but are just as weak or strong as any other men. They are not the sort who just collect wives as we in America often imagine. These are men, too, who must face great difficulty in just supporting their families. Going to work involves long waits at security checkpoints which can arbitrarily close.

“Men reclaimed masculinity from the grateful eyes of the women who tended to their tired bodies and sweat-drenched clothes.” (Kindle location 2376)

The frustrations of such a life are immense. And then, too, they and their wives must snatch moments of intimacy behind a pulled curtain, or, great luxury, in the only bedroom. How must father or husband feel knowing he cannot legally take his loved one out of the ghetto to a nearby country like Egypt for a simple X-ray? To watch a mother or wife or sister deal with breast cancer using only folk remedies and a long wait for radical surgery? How does a man keep his masculinity and keep going in such circumstances.

“…children who clung to their limbs, chests, and necks for the comforts a strong father could impart.” (Kindle location 2383)

Finally there is the story of rejection–of a child thrown away by the one who gave her life:

“‘There is something extraordinary about being rejected by one’s mother, she [said]…’It impoverishes the soul. It leaves holes everywhere and you spend your life trying to fill them up. With whatever you can find. With food. With drugs and alcohol. With all the wrong men you know will leave you, so maybe they will replicate the original hurt you felt. You do it to feel abandonment over and over because that’s the only thing you know of your mather. And it’s all you know to do to bring her close.'” (Kindle location 4139)

My exposure to this world came in college from a blue-eyed Jewish man with an Arab first name. Born with the Nation of Israel (the same month), he grew fed up with all of this–the ridiculousness of it, after his own family had lived peacefully with Arabs for centuries (not all did). His forced military service in the 6-day war sharpened this feeling, after the next war he was done. He came to the United States with his American born wife who, having immigrated to an Israeli kibbutz at 16, grew to be just as disillusioned as her husband. Later I worked with and casually went out with a Palestinian man who was here studying engineering. When he described what it took to get to American for school and the life he left behind I was shocked.  It propelled me to learn more about both sides of the life in the area. The political gamesmanship I’d learned in my undergraduate degree was played out far too vividly in their lives. I wanted to hide, to forget, to focus on me–but I could not. I went out into the world to learn as much as I could.

This book brought all of this back to me. I was grief stricken and teary in parts. I was mad in parts and I was irritated by every party involved behind the scenes of this family’s life (this fictional family representing all of those real ones)–those who closed the boarders, those who bombed, those who did “terrorist” attacks in retaliation. (Terrorist is whoever is against your side). Mostly I was angered anew at the International community for just letting it all go on and fester. Letting generations grow up in this way of mutual loathing and mistrust.

I highly recommend this book. It will shock, anger, comfort and cajole you.You will laugh, scream in anger, cry in frustration and rejoice all in one book. The Blue Between Sky and Water by Susan Abulhawa.

 

Reading Around the World: Ghana

To my mind, the fifth volume, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes, is the best of all the volumes of Maya Angelou’s autobiography. Set in 1962 (the year I was born) this book tells of the author’s journey to Ghana with her 17 year old son. Now part of a racial majority, she still encountered another sort of prejudice as an American. Her 17 year old son, too, found things out when he enrolled at the University of Ghana. Ms. Angelou married a Ghanaian who is described as a “freedom fighter.” I read this book just after I came home from Peace Corps in Malawi. All those years later (29 years) I had watched as the sole African-American in our group was rejected on our village visit–the locals wanted a “real” American (i.e. white) and how she struggled for acceptance. After two years of hard work she succeeded and stayed on after we went home to take an independent job. Ms Angelou,  with her high status and profile and her extensive contacts among actors, writers, etc, had quite a “journey” in this book.  I highly recommend ALL the volumes in her autobiography, but this one even more so.

All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes, by Maya Angelou

Happy Birthday to author Buchi Emecheta and a book list

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Ms Buchi Emecheta is a favorite of mine–I devoured her books when I returned home from my Peace Corps service (Malawi) in 1991. Ms Emecheta was born July 21, 1944, so to celebrate her birthday I’m listing may many favorites among her books. Her books deal with African womanhood, both at home and abroad. The expatriate experience was fascinating to me in 1991. I’d also just spent two years with some of the best educated women in Malawi–research scientists in agriculture, so I found her topics of women’s empowerment vs the pull of tradition to be very meaningful.

 

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Here then are my favorite– listed in no particular order, though, I would say The Bride Price is my favorite.

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The Joys of Motherhood

 

 

 

 

 

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The Bride Price

 

 

 

 

 

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In the Ditch

 

 

 

 

 

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Head Above Water

This is Buchi’s autobiography.

 

 

 

 

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Second Class Citizen

 

 

 

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Double Yoke

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve read elsewhere, and completely agree, that author Zadie Smith,  writes in ways very like hers. I enjoy both authors.

If you’ve been trying to Read the World, or to find a book or two from a country new to you, or just enjoy good books about strong women, then I urge you to give at least one of her books a try.

 

Happy Birthday, Ms Emecheta!

 

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Buchi Emecheta

Portrait by Marina Elphick @ https://marinaelphick.com/