Review: “Drifting” by Katia D. Ulysse

driftingDrifting is a collection of interwoven stories surrounding the lives of several Haitian men, women, and children, hinging on the devastating earthquake of 2010.

From the publisher:

Ulysse’s characters are everyday people: a ruthless entrepreneur who ferries peasants out of the countryside, promising them a better life in Port-au-Prince; the office worker who learns that the amount of money and time off she receives depend on her boss’s definition of family; a mother of three who is desperate to leave Haiti to join the husband who left her behind; young girls who fall prey to a trusted schoolteacher who advises them to “work smart, not hard.” And readers meet the desperate elderly woman who seeks the help of a vodun priest to help “fix” her dying husband.

I read this one quickly, in about 2 days. The characters were well-developed, believable, and easy to sympathize with. The descriptions were vivid and well put together. Though not a feel-good book by any means, it’s very informative and important.

TL;DR: All-in-all a good, worthwhile read, especially for those interested in modern Haiti or American immigration.

3 stars

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Review: “The Paris Herald” by James Oliver Goldsborough

19486590An account of the people behind the most famous American newspaper in Europe (now the International New York Times). It follows the lives of various men and women as they maneuver Paris during the 1960s, an unstable period in America as well as in Europe. They fall in and out of love, move out of the country and back, and hurt each other and themselves in the process.

I’m a sucker for books about newspapers….but this one was really, really difficult to get through. There were just too many characters introduced, all poorly drawn. Goldsborough tried to take on too many people, which resulted in half-baked story lines.

Most of the book is about American men and women cheating on their spouses, a subject I find very distasteful. It would be one thing if that was the story line of one of the characters…but it dominated the entire book. The few characters I had empathy for in the beginning of the book I lost all feeling for by the end.

The most frustrating thing about this book, though, is how it builds and builds…to a climax that never happens. A wife is cheating on her husband and hears him coming up the stairs, about to open the door on her and her lover – and the next thing we hear about them, they’re divorced. A man is considering moving to Málaga, away from his wife and children – the next we know of him, he’s been living there for an indeterminate amount of time. Literary blue-balling…it’s something I’ve never experienced before, and I don’t like it.

On the back cover of the book the publisher writes that it’s “the best story of Americans in Paris since Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.” Hardly. That’s not even a very big genre, and I still disagree. Even Sarah’s Key was much better.

If I were Goldsborough, I would have written a good non-fiction account of The Paris Herald during this time period, if he was so interested in it. I might have enjoyed reading that if it were done well. But this historical fiction piece just does not work.

TL;DR: Skip it. That’s all I have to say.

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Review: “American Crucifixion” by Alex Beam

18210814The full title of the book describes it all – American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church is a compelling account of the years, months, days and hours leading up the murder of the founder and leader of the Mormon church, as well as the events that occurred immediately after.

Beam really did his homework while preparing to write this book. He spent time with countless scholars in the LDS church, historians in the church archives and from BYU. The book is rich with details about the inner workings of the church under the leadership of Joseph Smith. Beam shows how Smith’s “revelation” of plural marriage led to deep divisions in the church and was the primary fuel of anti-Mormon fervor in Illinois and beyond.

Those who know little to nothing about the LDS church need not fear; the book briefly explains the “revelations” of Joseph Smith and how he came to found the church and recruit members. For those who already have some knowledge of the church, the book is a valuable and enlightening addition.

I couldn’t find much information about Beam himself, but from what I gather he is not Mormon himself. With that in mind, it’s impressive how he was able to write a balanced piece about a church that has seen so much controversy. Any bias you may hear in this review is purely from my own opinions that I had before reading the book. So extra kudos to Beam for being objective! My only complaint is that the jacket feels like sandpaper and I recoiled the first time I touched it, so hopefully you don’t mind reading your book without the jacket!

TL;DR: A really great read for anyone interested in the history of the LDS church!

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Review: “Notes from the Hyena’s Belly” by Nega Mezlekia

notesMy second review this weekend of a book about Ethiopia, and while the books are very similar in some ways, there are key differences that make each uniquely worthwhile.

Notes from the Hyena’s Belly is the memoir of a man who grew up in an Ethiopian city near the border with Somalia. The town of Jijiga was split between the Amhara Christian north and the Somali Muslim south, but the two sides coexisted peacefully at the time of his birth in 1958.

The story that develops is much the same as what we saw in Cutting for Stone. The revolution creeps in to begin destroying lives, but in this memoir, it happens much more quickly. Mezlekia finds himself involved in revolutionary politics before he knew they were revolutionary, and this gets him in trouble repeatedly throughout his early life, even after he ceases to be an active participant in the struggle. His family becomes part of a sea of refugees escaping the volatile eastern part of the country, and set out to find the rest of his mother’s family further west.

Mezlekia peppers his story with various folktales told to him throughout his life that help illustrate the culture and thinking of the people who raised him. What’s more, his anecdotes about growing up are colorful, funny, and enlightening about a culture most people don’t know much about. The way he writes about the superstitions of his mother, teacher, and others shows the absurdity of what they believed, but also sometimes endears the reader to those who hold the beliefs. For example, he writes about a woman who lived in his family home as he was growing up. She prays to both the Christian saints and to her ancestors; however, when she prays to the latter she closes herself in her room and stops up all light that could filter in so that the saints won’t see her, of course.

A small criticism of Mezlekia is that often he makes it seem that he was always better than or had greater morals than the people around him. Certainly he was better than those that slaughtered children, but I doubt he had the western mindset (as he seems to imply) until he had lived in the west for several years. It was a little exasperating and not credible.

Verdict:

Notes from the Hyena’s Belly is detailed in ways that Cutting for Stone is not, but that’s natural in a memoir. It combines important historical information about Ethiopia with personal anecdotes to create a well-rounded piece of literature.

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Review: “Cutting for Stone” by Abraham Verghese

stoneThis is the story of Marion Stone, born in Ethiopia from the illicit union between an Indian nun and a British surgeon. On the night he and his brother Shiva were born, his mother died and his father disappeared. The boys are raised by two other doctors for the hospital in which the boys were born. Marion recounts his experience growing up in Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia, and the sometimes complicated bond between him and his twin brother. As Marion grows older and the country becomes embroiled in a revolution, his life becomes more and more entangled with the warfare and may eventually lead him to his estranged father.

I’ve found little Ethiopia literature, though I don’t know why. I’m grateful for this novel, as it is a gem. Although fiction, it provides a great window into a volatile period in African history that few Westerners know much, if anything, about. The characters are well-crafted and believable, and the writing flows easily. Verghese creates a picture of Addis Ababa and the devastation it took due to the revolution, a picture more vivid than any history book could create.

Verdict: 

Highly recommended for those interested in a little-known culture and history. One of the best books I’ve so far this year!

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Review: “The Bully Pulpit” by Doris Kearns Goodwin

17334495A fantastic narrative about the friendship between Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft, and the lives of each individually. But more than that, it’s a story of how the two men(primarily Roosevelt) used the media to fairly promote themselves and their agendas. It’s about a time when journalists cared about their work and strove to produce great stories that could (and did) change the country.

I got the impression while reading that there really used to be honest politicians that worked for the betterment of society rather than for the empowerment of their corporate lobbyists (the narrative about corporate lobbying in this book is painfully familiar). For example, while Taft lived in the Philippines working to set up a new government just after the Spanish-American war, he sent his own children to one of the newly created public schools along with the native children. These days, politicians preach that they know what’s best for public schools, yet they send their own children to a private school (I’m looking at you, Scott Walker).

Goodwin’s politics are pretty obvious throughout the book, though not annoyingly so. She subtly demonstrates approval for Roosevelt and Taft’s efforts to reign in corporate power, and disapproval for those who opposed said efforts.

This rather large work of non-fiction reads like a novel, Goodwin having included plenty of amusing anecdotes to present a rich picture of her subjects. It took Goodwin seven years to write the book, and the majority of that time must have been spent doing research, much like the iconic journalists she writes about.

Verdict:

This is one of the best books I’ve read of any genre in the past year or so. It’s worth picking up your own copy. The hardcover isn’t cheap – the list price is $40.00. However, there are already used copies out there, and the Kindle edition is a more than reasonable $9.99.

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