About Time I Read It: Haben by Haben Girma

I don’t think anyone can resist a memoir by the first deafblind woman to graduate from Harvard Law School. Even though I was up to my eyeballs in library books I didn’t resist it either, grabbing a copy of Haben Girma’s 2019 Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law during one of my weekend library visits. A light read but far from a piece of fluff, I whipped through it quickly. I walked away from Haben with both an admiration for its author, but also a new perspective on what it’s like to live with different abilities. 

As one might guess from the book’s subtitle Girma is a pretty remarkable person. The American-born daughter of Eritrean immigrants she was born legally blind and deaf. As a child she might walk into a room and see a person sitting on a couch as a shadowy blur. But by the time she was a young adult her sense of sight had deteriorated to the point “walking into a room is like stepping into an abstract painting of fuzzy formations and colorful smashes.” Born with low frequency hearing but not high, over the years she would lose even that modest ability. But to her credit she bravely battled on, refusing to let those sensory restrictions prevent her from living an accomplished life. 

And what an accomplished life so far. In high school, Girma successfully lobbied her parents to let her to spend a summer in the African nation of Mali doing relief work. Later, instead of sticking safely close to home in the Bay Area with premier colleges Stanford and UC Berkeley in her own backyard she opted to attend Lewis and Clark in my former town of Portland, Oregon. (It’s fun to imagine I might have passed her on the street during one of her forays off campus.) Later, after graduating from Harvard Law School she would go on to serve as a disability rights lawyer and play an instrumental role in winning a landmark ADA-related case. For her successful efforts as an attorney and disabilities advocate she earned a trip to the White House to be honored by both Vice President Biden and President Obama.

Much like it’s author, this memoir is direct, passionate and a much needed challenge to our long-held assumptions of people with different abilties. 

Book Beginnings: Haben by Haben Girma

Not only does Gilion host the European Reading and TBR 22 in 22 on her Rose City Reader blog but also Book Beginnings on Friday. While I’m no stranger to her European Reading Challenge, only recently I decided to participate in Book Beginnings on Friday. This week I’m back with another post.

For Book Beginnings on Friday Gilion asks us to simply “share the opening sentence (or so) of the book you are reading this week, or just a book that caught your fancy and you want to highlight.”

MY BOOK BEGINNING

I’m deafblind. Because I can’t see faces or recognize voices,
every conversation needs to start with a name. My friends begin conversations like this: “It’s Cam,” “It’s Gordon,” or if someone is drinking, “It’s me.”

Last week I featured the 2016 novel This House Is Mine by German writer and linguist Dörte Hansen. The week before it was the 2016 biography True Believer: Stalin’s Last American Spy by Hungarian-American writer Kati Marton. This week it’s the 2019 memoir Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law by Eritrean-American lawyer and disability rights advocate Haben Girma.

Haben is one of several books over the last month or so that’s intrigued me as I’ve walked by it on the shelf during my weekend trips to the public library. The true story of a death and blind woman who was able to graduate from Harvard Law School was simply too hard to resist. I was also pleased to learn she did her undergraduate studies at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, OR, a city where I lived my entire life until just a few years ago. Instead of me blathering on, here’s what the book’s page on Amazon has to say:

Haben defines disability as an opportunity for innovation. She learned non-visual techniques for everything from dancing salsa to handling an electric saw. She developed a text-to-braille communication system that created an exciting new way to connect with people. Haben pioneered her way through obstacles, graduated from Harvard Law, and now uses her talents to advocate for people with disabilities.

 

Library Loot

After returning a small stack of books to the public library I was ready for more. In recent Library Loots I’ve been featuring a lot of fiction, much of it by authors from outside the US. This week I’ve returned to my old ways with a nice selection of nonfiction. But much like before, two of these authors are from outside the US. Helen Rappaport is from the United Kingdom while Gianni Guadalupi hails from Italy. With the exception of Rappaport’s Caught in the Revolution these books were published over 10 years ago. 

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading to encourage bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write-up your post, steal the Library Loot icon and link your post using the Mr. Linky on Sharlene’s blog.  

About Time I Read It: On Black Sisters Street by Chika Unigwe

It’s not everyday you discover a novel by a Nigerian writer, translated from Dutch and set in Antwerp, Belgium. Lucky for me, the good people at my public library felt the same way. Prominently displayed as to catch the eye of even the most unobservant patron like myself Chika Unigwe’s On Black Sisters Street is the sad yet skillfully crafted story of four African women, who through a combination of bad luck, poor choices and evil machinations of a Nigerian pimp have been forced to work as prostitutes in the city’s red-light district.

Sisi, Ama, Efe, and Joyce all had dreams, be it a successful career, marital bliss or happy motherhood. But somewhere along the way they encountered significant setbacks. During these most vulnerable moments they encountered Dele. Charming and wealthy, he lavished the young women with flattery and attention, promising they’d make big money working respectable jobs in Europe’s most glamorous cities. Offering to arrange everything, once they accepted one by one Dele flew them to Antwerp, where upon arrival it was made clear they were now prostitutes expected to stand night after night in the windows of the red-light district offering their bodies to passing men. Thrown together in this unenviable predicament, over time the four women form a tight bond, sharing their respective backstories of how they wound up as reluctant sex workers and what they’d like to do once they escaped.

Unigwe’s 2011 novel is a tragic tale told vividly and beautifully. But most of all told as only an African could, employing distinctive cadence and vernacular. Just like Bruce Riedel’s Kings and Presidents, Jonathan Kaufman’s The Last Kings of Shanghai and Cristina García Here in Berlin On Black Sisters Street is shaping up to be one of this year’s pleasant surprises.

About Time I Read It: King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild

Adam Hochschild’s 1998 King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa until recently is one many highly praised books sitting in my personal library ignored and unread for years. Even though I’d included it in several TBR reading challenges over the years I never made an effort to read it. Then last week for some inexplicable reason I picked up my copy of King Leopold’s Ghost and gave it a shot. Like so many other great books in my personal library that went unread so long I kicked myself for not reading it sooner.

Until the 1998 publication of King Leopold’s Ghost the death of as many as 10 million Congolese at the hands of their Belgian colonial overlords and agents was a forgotten genocide, at most an obscure historical footnote. Mining the historical record of first hand accounts, newspaper articles, letters and the like Hochschild has bequeathed  to a new generation a detailed and accessible history of the horrors that were inflicted upon the innocent peoples of of late 19th century Central Africa. Hochschild also recalls the forgotten stories of those crusading individuals who frequently faced impossible odds to bring such atrocities to light. Called by many as a history book that reads like a novel, King Leopold’s Ghost is a vivid testimony to both the evil that men do and those committed to fighting it.

As the nations of Europe carved up Africa in search of colonies one monarch from the relatively small kingdom of Belgium sought the biggest prize of all. For the first third or so of his adult life King Leopold was seen by his royal peers as a shallow bore, nothing more than a petty monarch of a minor realm. Tired of being out-shadowed by grander heads of state like his first cousin Queen Victoria of Great Britain Leopold wanted a piece of colonial real estate he could call his own. Playing imperial powers like England and France against each other and enlisting the assistance of the upstart United States while also crafting a wily public relations game he was able to place a huge swath of Central Africa under his control, in effect making it his own personal territory to exploit as he saw fit.

Wealth first flowed from Congo into Leopold’s private purse in the form of Ivory. Before advances in field of petrochemicals ivory was the plastics of the 19th century, used in everything from billiard balls to false teeth. Elephants were slaughtered mercilessly for their tusks to keep up with demand. Later, advances in technology sparked a need for rubber and before long Leopold’s agents were transforming Congo into one, massive rubber plantation. But these extractive industries came a horrible price. Perversely billed as an African “Free State” Congo was little more than a nation of slaves. To enrich Leopold its inhabitants were beaten, mutilated, starved and murdered into submission.

This is a great book that succeeds in telling a grim story. I highly recommend you read it and if you do, I strongly suggest you go with the newer 2020 edition. Barbara Kingsolver, in her foreward recalls the impact the book had on her 20 years earlier around the time her novel The Poisonwood Bible was published. The book concludes with a personal afterword by Hochschild in which he looks back on the two decades since the King Leopold’s Ghost’s publication and how some, but not all in the West, including Belgium have come to grips with the genocide. In the half century following the nation’s independence from Belgium Congo has been plagued by civil wars, poverty and oppression. Almost like Leopold’s murderous ghost still haunts the tortured land.

About Time I Read It: The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan

I love books that make me fundamentally rethink how I understand the world, specifically how we got here and even where we’re going. The first of these kind of books I read was probably Europe: A History by Norman Davies. (20 years after I read it I still remember him wisely pointing out Europe, for all its glory, geographically speaking is nevertheless a peninsula of Asia. He also boldly claimed events and developments in the 19th century had a greater impact on today’s modern world than those of the 20th.) As I read more over the years I discovered other powerful and expansive books like Guns, Germs and Steel, Carnage and Culture, Why Nations Fail and 1493. More recently, last year I had the pleasure of reading The Jakarta Method, Maoism: A Global History and The Islamic Enlightenment all of which fell into this category.

When my book club announced we were reading Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, another of these kind of books I quickly borrowed an ebook copy through my public library’s Overdrive portal. Sweeping and detailed, I nevertheless made quick work of the readable Silk Roads in roughly a week. This fine book should easily make my year-end list of Favorite Nonfiction.

Based on Frankopan’s extensive research, for thousands of years Central Asia and its adjacent lands (roughly the Persian Empire at greatest extent, give or take a bit) has played a decisive role shaping world history. Over the centuries armies, plagues, riches and religions have traveled time honored trade routes commonly referred as the Silk Road across South Central Eurasia. This new interpretation shifts our attention east making Central Asia history’s prime mover as opposed to Europe, and upending our traditional Eurocentric view of world history.

While it’s undeniable Greece and Rome left an indelible imprints on Western thought one must remember all the world’s major religions originated somewhere in Asia, with the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam all developing in relatively close proximity to each other. (Helping make cross-pollination between them in varying degrees possible.) While Greek ideas and imagery traveled east with Alexander’s armies leaving a lasting influence from Asia Minor to India Buddhist and Zoroastrian concepts flowed in the opposite direction doing much the same. (Buddhist missionaries in the Levant might have been responsible for introducing the dualistic concepts which would form the core of Gnosticism, an early Christian heresy. Hundreds of years later, it’s possible the first Islamic madrasahs were modeled on Buddhist teaching communities.)

During the Middle Ages, armies of an assertive Christian Europe flush with new-found sense of purpose invaded the western shores of Central Asia in a series of conflicts known as the Crusades. Exposed to the region’s higher standard of living Crusaders and their descendants developed tastes for the finer things in life, leading to an explosion in first regional, and then intercontinental commerce. Even though the Latin Kingdoms they founded on the shores of the Mediterranean were eventually vanquished it spawned lasting trade between Europe and Asia, with the Italian maritime city states profiting handsomely.

Later in the Middle Ages, these same trade routes would also bring plague to Europe, decimating the continent’s population. This die off would make labor scarce, drive up wages and lead to wealth redistribution. Overall, incomes rose  and demand increased for goods from Asia. Feeling cut out of the lucrative international trade business, Iberian powers Portugal and Spain saw sailing east as the solution. By doing so they not only found another route to India around Africa, but more importantly discovered the New World.

Then later, the discovery, and subsequent conquest of the Americas changed everything once again. Instead of European inhabitants dying by the millions this time it was Americans. Their kingdoms destroyed and their royal coffers looted, silver and gold by the ship full flowed from the New World to Iberia. As these riches and the ones that followed percolated across Europe and began enriching England and the Low Countries it created demand for even more high value goods from Asia. As living standards rose it lead to an intellectual awakening known as the Enlightenment. Sadly, the Age of Reason could not have happened without the theft of America’s gold and silver and the slaughter and subjugation of its natives.

The centrality of Central Eurasia extends well into the modern age. For the later half of the 19th century Russia and Great Britain were bitter rivals in the Great Game for control of the gateway to India. Happy to see Tsarist Russia turn its attention elsewhere Britain did everything it could to encourage Russian animosity towards Germany, setting the stage for World War I. 20 years later Hitler justified Germany’s invasion of the USSR as a means to secure Ukraine’s wheat. At the turn of the 20th century it was the British who first saw the potential for oil to replace coal to fuel navies and later, trains and automobiles. Throughout much of the 20th century and into the 21st, pipelines and tanker routes would criss-cross the globe bringing oil from the lands of the former Persian Empire to the industrialized West.

By the end of the book we have come full circle. Once again China is the world’s premier exporter. Instead supplying the world with silk and porcelain today it’s everything from consumer electronics to household goods to steel. Flexing its newfound economic and political might the country launched its Belt and Road Initiative: the creation of land and rail routes from China to Western Eurasia, Africa and beyond closely following the trade routes of old crisscrossing Central Asia. Think of this massive international infrastructure development strategy as 21st century’s answer to the Silk Road – on steroids. All while the region’s former Soviet Republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus, blessed with almost limitless petroleum reserves, have become major players on the world stage.

Frankopan makes a compelling, if not convincing case the lands of Central Eurasia, and not Europe was key in the rise of Western civilization. Please consider his book The Silk Roads highly recommended.

About Time I Read It: An Appetite for Wonder by Richard Dawkins

Some staff member at my favorite local library must be a fan of Richard Dawkins because for weeks a copy of the esteemed scientist’s  2013 memoir An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist had been prominently displayed in the memoirs, biographies and autobiographies section. One Saturday my curiosity finally got the better of me and I decided to borrow it. Once the memoir was in my possession I slowly made my way through it, finishing mere days before it was due back at the library. Perhaps like most books, there as things about it I liked and things I didn’t.

This is the second book I’ve read by the renowned British evolutionary biologist, science writer and “New Atheist.” Over a decade ago I read his much talked about 2006 book The God Delusion. (Not long afterwards I followed it up with Alister McGrath and Joanna McGrath’s Christian response,The Dawkins Delusion?: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine.) Written as the first volume of a two volume set, the book covers the lives of his parents, his childhood and his early career as a scientist, ending with the publication of his first book The Selfish Gene.

Before reading Appetite for Wonder I would have assumed even though I wasn’t an expert on Dawkins I probably knew more about him than the average person. After reading this book I learned quite quickly how ignorant I really was. For instance, I had no idea he was born in Africa. (His father had been working as an agricultural civil servant in what is now Malawi when he was drafted into the military. A few years later, after his father was posted to nearby Kenya Dawkins was born.) Likewise, I had no idea one of the world’s most prominent atheists was a devout Anglican in his youth, albeit for a short period. I also wasn’t aware he spent time at UC Berkeley as an assistant professor of zoology during the tumultuous late 60s and took part in anti-war protests. Lastly, I had no idea he was a pioneer in the field of computer programing.

My least favorite passages of the book are the ones where Dawkins goes on and on about early computer programming. I also didn’t enjoy some of the science-related stuff, but his thoughts on evolution towards the end of the book were pretty good. Overall, it’s a decent book and it’s left me thinking I might read more of his stuff down the road.

About Time I Read It: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

When it comes to book recommendations, never underestimate the value of word of mouth. Had it not been for a friend’s recommendation, I might never have read great books like Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Dark Money or The Lost Gutenberg. Not long ago a good friend of mine (and one of the smartest people I know) told me she was reading Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood and had good things to say about it. While I was at the public library grabbing memoirs a few weeks ago I helped myself to a well-worn copy. Keep in mind I was doing all this based on my friend’s recommendation. I avoid celebrity memoirs like the plague. On top of that, haven’t watched The Daily Show in years, and not since Noah took over as host. After ignoring Noah’s book for about a week I gave it a try. My good friend did not steer me wrong. Thanks to Born a Crime I probably learned more about South Africa’s transition from white-minority rule to post-Apartheid democracy than anything I’ve read up to this point. And while doing so, thanks to Noah’s intelligent and irreverent wit, I laughed repeatedly.

Under South Africa’s old regime interracial liaisons were illegal, but human beings being what we are, nevertheless such couplings still happened. (Noah, reflecting on the absurdity of such a prohibition figured if the police ever caught an interracial couple in flagrante delicto the apprehending officer would just counsel the white male, “just go home, you’re drunk.”) With his mother a black Xhosa and his father a white Swiss expat, the biracial Noah was, and still is classified under South African law as coloured. Being biracial could be thought of as inhabiting two worlds at once. Perhaps this almost quantum state combined with his talent for mastering multiple languages (he speaks eight, including English, Xhosa and Afrikaans), wit and good natured charm allowed him to communicate with and relate well to most, if not all the South Africans he encountered throughout his young life regardless of their race or class. Alas, however as many a parent can tell you when a young man is blessed with wit, charm and ambition it’s tempting to be mischievous. It was these stories, the ones in which young Trevor not as much broke the rules, but, well, bended were my favorites.

The world knows Trevor Noah as a television star and a global celebrity. I’m amazed after reading his memoir the obstacles he overcame to get where he is today. If growing up coloured in South Africa wasn’t enough he had to endure crushing poverty, (at one point reduced to eating caterpillars) a murderously abusive stepfather, a religiously zealous hard-ass mother (Sundays she would drag Noah to not one, but three different churches), violent crime (the book begins with young Trevor and his mom having to bail out of a moving passenger van because they were in the process of being kidnapped) and oppressive South African police.

I enjoyed Born a Crime. It taught me a lot of South Africa and made me laugh. Can’t go wrong with that.

20 Books of Summer: War on Peace by Ronan Farrow

When chosing a book to read I usually take backcover praise with a grain of salt. But when Ian Bremmer says it’s a “must-read” I take notice. That’s all it took for me to grab a copy of Ronan Farrow 2018 insider’s look at the State Department War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence when I spotted a copy at the public library.

Over the course of his career, Farrow has worn at least two hats, one as a State Department Iawyer and the other as an investigative journalist. Thanks to the author’s diverse background War on Peace could be seen as two books in one. As a former State Department official Farrow recalls the time he spent at the agency, much of it working for veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke. (Through Farrow’s eyes anyway, the late Holbrooke comes off as an overly driven figure so eccentric I suspect he resided somewhere on the Autism spectrum.) Utilizing his talents as an investigative journalist allowed Farrow to serve up a no-holds barred look at the messy world of international diplomacy. To pull off this feat he interviewed every living former State Department head. Farrow must have some serious street cred becuase he’s able to sit down with Kissinger, Albright, Clinton, Kerry and Tillerson.

Overall, War on Peace is pretty good. I especially enjoyed what Farrow had to say about Afghanistan, Pakistan and those countries’ role in the “War on Terror.” (Regarding Pakistan’s level of dedication in fighting al-Queda and the Taliban, let’s just say it’s no coincidence Osama bin Laden lived comfortably for years in a fortified compound a stone’s throw away from the nation’s top military academy.) The behind the scenes look at the Iranian nuclear deal was another favorite of mine. Lastly, while it angered and depressed me, Farrow’s depiction of the State Department being gutted by the Trump administration made for excellent reading.

The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World by Maya Jasanoff

I’ve never read any Joseph Conrad, but like a lot of people I was unknowingly introduced to his writing thanks to the wonders of Hollywood. I was exposed to Heart of Darkness courtesy of Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s hallucinatory Vietnam War epic. The sci-fi-fi movies Alien and Aliens served as preludes of sort to Conrad’s novel Nostromo, since the first film featured a spaceship of the same name while its sequel Aliens, stared a group of space marines from the U.S.S. Sulaco, named for the fictional Latin American town in the Conrad novel. But these cinematic borrowings never inspired me to read any Conrad, despite for years having a copy of Heart of Darkness a good friend gave me for my birthday.

About a year ago I came across several favorable reviews of a new biography of Conrad, namely The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World by Maya Jasanoff. The reviews mentioned he’d found literary success only later in life after he’d effectively retired as a merchant seaman. During those impressionable years at sea he not only visited countless exotic locales around the globe but did so during an era when the world experienced its first wave of globalization as foreign peoples were colonized, markets expanded and international trade exploded. Duly intrigued by what I’d read, I vowed to borrow a copy of The Dawn Watch from my public library. Who knows, maybe if I read it, I’d finally get off my butt and read some Conrad.

Last week my library obtained an e-book version of The Dawn Watch which I quickly borrowed. I have to say it’s quite good. And yes, it’s probably inspired me to finally read some Joseph Conrad.

The writer we know today as Joseph Conrad was born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857 in what’s now Ukraine. His parents were minor Polish nobility and ardent Polish nationalists opposed to Russian subjugation of their homeland. As a young boy he was homeschooled in French, English as well as Polish romantic poetry. After losing both his parents to tuberculosis he was sent to live with his Francophile uncle. By the time Józef became conversant in French he’d also developed a yearning to sail the ocean. At the tender age of 16 at his uncle’s behalf he moved to Marseilles to sail on a French vessel. After a few years of sailing under a French flag he feared he’d be deported to Russia to serve in the Tsar’s army. To escape military conscription he signed on with British ship. In all he’d spend over two decades as a merchant seaman visiting every continent save Antarctica.

According to Jasanoff it was these travels that provided Conrad with the material for his books. Working on a steamship in SE Asia served as the inspiration for Lord Jim. The horrors he witnessed while chugging up the Congo in Belgian-held central Africa provided him the template for Heart of Darkness. A story about a stolen shipment of silver he heard during a brief foray into the Gulf of Mexico would eventually form the nucleus for Nostromo. Lastly, his experiences living in London living among the city’s huge Polish expat community would greatly shape The Secret Agent.

I walked away from The Dawn Watch feeling Conrad’s life was bookended by transition. When he began his maritime career, sail was gradually being phased out in favor of steam. The British led the world in this arena thanks to their then state of the art coal-powered steamships and extensive network of coaling stations spread throughout their empire. Later in his life, as an English-language writer living in his adopted country of England, he witnessed the rise of the United States as a world power, made evident by its continental expansion, acquisition of foreign territories like Guam and the Philippines, increasing economic might and blistering industrialization. Meanwhile, closer to home fear abounded that Great Britain was slipping into decline. As America’s stature rose, British assertiveness in Western Hemisphere became a thing of the past. A surprisingly costly Boer War and a rapidly growing German navy challenged the once universal belief the British Empire was invincible.

The Dawn Watch is a great book. It reads with ease and is well-researched. Don’t be surprised if it make my year-end list for Best Nonfiction.