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.

 

Immigrant Stories: A Dream Called Home by Reyna Grande

After spending much of this summer reading books for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I was ready for something different. At the library one weekend I added to my growing stack of library books cradled in my arms a pair of memoirs that had previously caught my eye. Reyna Grande’s A Dream Called Home appealed to me because I can’t resist a good immigrant memoir. Sadly, I ignored A Dream Called Home for several weeks before I finally started reading it. I’m happy to say once I did I whipped through Grande’s 2018 memoir in no time.

Unbeknownst to me, it’s a sequel of sorts to her previous memoir The Distance Between Us. A Dream Called Home begins with her college years at UC-Santa Cruz followed by her brief stint as a teacher at an economically depressed public school, followed by a more rewarding position as an ESL instructor teaching adults happy to learn English. From start to finish however, her overriding quest was to become a published and successful writer. As a non-native born woman of color was, and still is, forced to navigate the dominant Anglo culture, and all that comes with it. On top of that, Grande also had to deal with a host of other challenges including a rather troublesome extended family, home ownership in a gang-plagued LA neighborhood, the pressures of single parenthood and her life-long habit of falling for feckless men.

But Grande is a fighter, and without revealing too much, in the end she gets published, earns critical acclaim and even meets a quality guy. Probably the most valuable take away from A Dream Called Home is to be a successful writer one needs not only talent but a whole lot of perseverance.

20 Books of Summer: Bitter Lemons of Cyprus by Lawrence Durrell

Based solely on a quick glance at a map, it might be hard to think of Cyprus as European. A relative stone’s throw from Turkey, one might consider it part of the Middle East, or at the very least the Levant. Despite our geographical first impressions, based on its deep cultural ties to the Adriatic and spending close to a century as a British possession Cyprus is more than arguably a European nation. Even with the northeast section of Cyprus an internationally unrecognized Turkish puppet state the Greek-speaking island republic was welcomed into the EU in 2004, and the Eurozone four years later.

Perhaps failing to fully comprehend this, for as long as I’ve participated in Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I’ve never read a book representing Cyprus. Seeking to change that I recently borrowed through my public library’s Overdrive portal a 2012 Kindle release of Lawrence Durrell’s 1960 travel memoir Bitter Lemons of Cyprus: Life on a Mediterranean Island. Durrell’s very British, very mid-20th century first-hand account of the island’s twilight years under colonial rule is a pleasurable mix of travelogue, history and politics served with wry humor.

By 1953, after years of serving the British Crown overseas in the Balkans Lawrence Durrell has come to Cyprus in search of a quieter life. The former government official, writer and poet would love nothing more than secure a modest country residence, live convivially with the locals and embrace whatever advantages come his way. In what feels like no time he’s on a trajectory to accomplish all of this, and even more when more larger, unreconcilable forces get in his way.

Across the globe colonial subjects are demanding their freedom. On Cyprus, voices claiming to represent the Island’s Greek majority begin calling not only for the end of British rule but union or Enosis with the Kingdom of Greece. Emboldened by the Island’s Greek Orthodox clergy and pro-Enosis broadcasts from Radio Athens increasing numbers of Greek Cypriots demand the British leave the island and Cyprus unite with Greece. (An eery precursor to our current American fundamentalist preachers in tandem with right-wing media personalities peddling election denialism and pro-insurrectionist propaganda.) Frustrated by Britain’s refusal to leave voluntarily, some resort to violence. As a growing insurgency of bombings and assassinations erupts on the island the British are forced to counter with armed actions of their own, and in the process help escalate hostilities.

Cursed, as the Chinese would say with having to live in interesting times, Durrell is forced to contend with this rapidly deteriorating situation. Be they Greek or Turk, Durrell has been the appreciative recipient of bountiful Cypriot hospitality, making many a good friend among the locals. But as things spin out of control, for safety’s sake he’s forced to leave Cyprus. His decision to leave made easier knowing his Cypriot friends will no longer be at risk for being killed as collaborators based on their associations with him.

I mentioned in an earlier post Robert Kaplan has a new book out entitled Adriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age and I’ve placed a hold on it with the library. Until my copy become available, I’ll probably make do with books on that part of the world and parts adjacent to it. Who knows, that might even include another good book or two about Cyprus.

Sunday Salon

For over a month I’ve been taking part in The Sunday Salon hosted by Deb Nance at Readerbuzz. So far it’s been a huge success and I’m striving to make it a regular feature. So here’s another post. 

I’m happy to report this week I finished Stuart Jeffries’s Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School as well as David Gilmour’s The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, its Regions and their Peoples. Impressive works of nonfiction,  both books are strong contenders to make my year-end list of Favorite Nonfiction

 With Jeffries’s and Gilmour’s books under my belt, I’ve gone back to reading Dzevad Karahasan’s Sarajevo, Exodus of a City and Yann Martel’s The High Mountains of Portugal. I also started Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons of Cyprus: Life on a Mediterranean Island. As you probably guessed all three books are for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. 

Articles. Even with my nose buried in several books I read a number of excellent articles last week. Inspired by Paula Bardell-Hedley’s outstanding weekly feature “Winding Up the Week” on her great blog Book Jotter I’ve started incorporating these into my Sunday Salon posts and will continue to do so in the future. 

Listening. Like I’ve said before, with so many things going on in the world there’s been no shortage of material for my favorite podcasts. But with last week’s FBI raid on Trump’s Florida residence many of my usual podcasts have been abuzz with commentary and speculation. This has made for some interesting listening which I’m sure will only intensify. 

Watching. After finishing up season 4 of Stranger Things it’s been all Mr. Robot. Like I’ve said before it just gets crazier and crazier thanks to insane plot twists, great writing and superb acting. It’s been one hell of a wild ride. I also caught on YouTube a special installment of the Lincoln Project’s The Breakdown, devoted mostly to the FBI’s recent raid on Trump’s Florida residence. “So much ‘criming’ as co-host Tara Setmayer described Trump’s ongoing attempts to subvert democracy and proclaim himself President for Life. 

 

Everything else. In what’s becoming a Friday ritual I met my professor buddies on Friday at our favorite winery for wine, conversation and a killer view. I’ve been drinking coffee in the mornings, but in the evenings I’ve been known to enjoy an adult beverage or two with my books and articles. 

Library Loot

Every time I return a big stack of books to the public library I turn right around and grab more. That in fact is exactly what I did the other day. (And if you’ve been following my blog for any length of time I’m sure this isn’t exactly news to you!) In addition to my usual selection of books with an international focus I’ve  included a pair of intriguing memoirs. On top of that, five of the six books featured in this week’s Library Loot are by women authors. I’m hoping to apply three of these books towards Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge and one towards Introverted Reader’s Books in Translation Reading Challenge

  • Bitter Lemons of Cyprus: Life on a Mediterranean Island by Lawrence Durrell – I’ve never read anything about the island of Cyprus. Sounds perfect for the European Reading Challenge.
  • The Wrong End of the Telescope by Rabih Alameddine – Set on the Greek island of Lesbos, Lebanese doctor Mina Simpson is forced to confront a humanitarian crises at the island’s Moria refugee camp. 
  • Courage and Defiance: Stories of Spies, Saboteurs, and Survivors in World War II Denmark by Deborah Hopkinson – Yet another book for the European Reading Challenge. 
  • A Dream Called Home by Reyna Grande – A memoir by a woman who fled Mexico on foot at the tender age of nine years old to search of her family in the United States who later went  to graduate from UC Santa Cruz looked too hard to pass up. 
  • Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood – Just like A Dream Called Home, it was equally hard to pass up Lockwood’s memoir of being raised by a father who was, of all things, a Catholic priest. 
  • This House Is Mine by Dörte Hansen – I have a soft spot for books about refugees who fled East Prussia at the end of World War II. Translated from German, I’ll by applying this one towards the Books in Translation Reading Challenge. 

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 Claire’s blog.  

Sunday Salon

For over a month I’ve been taking part in The Sunday Salon hosted by Deb Nance at Readerbuzz. So far it’s been a huge success and I’m striving to make it a regular feature. So here’s another post. 

I finished Frank Blaichman’s Rather Die Fighting: A Memoir of World War II   as well as Adam Hochschild’s Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936–1939. I read both books for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. 

Late last week I started David Gilmour’s The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, its Regions and their Peoples. So far it’s shaping up to be an excellent book and perfect for the European Reading Challenge. I’ve also resumed reading Stuart Jeffries’s Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School

Listening. With so many things going on in the world there’s been no shortage of material for my favorite podcasts. Despite this extensive list I feel I should be listening to much more. 

Watching. Mr. Robot continues to entertain with its crazy plot twists, great writing and superb acting. I also caught a few episodes of Stranger Things. On Thursday after watching the January 6 Hearings I followed it up with an entertaining and informative episode of the Lincoln Project’s The Breakdown.    

Everything else. Yesterday my professor buddy and I had some great wine as we took in the amazing view at our favorite local winery. The weather at my place has been nice of late so I’ve been reading on my porch.  While I’ve been drinking coffee in the mornings, in the evenings with my book I’ve been known to enjoy an adult beverage or two.

 

 

20 Books of Summer: Rather Die Fighting by Frank Blaichman

Needing something representing Poland for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I happily helped myself to a copy of Frank Blaichman’s 2009 memoir Rather Die Fighting: A Memoir of World War II when I came across it during at the public library. I knew a little bit about Poland’s wartime Jewish partisans thanks to Matthew Brzezinski’s excellent 2012 book Isaac’s Army: A Story of Courage and Survival in Nazi-Occupied Poland and figured Rather Die Fighting would present me with a great opportunity to learn more.

Frank Blaichman was 16 years old when Germany invaded his native Poland in 1939. After witnessing the Nazis rounding up his fellow Jews for “resettlement” he fled into the forests and soon joined a band of Jewish partisans. Like so many teens across war-torn Europe he was forced to grow up quickly, electing to fight the Germans and their collaborators. Committed, intelligent, and wise beyond his years it wasn’t long before his commanders made him an officer.

Hard enough Blaichman and his fellow Jewish partisans had to fight the Germans but they also had to contend with a complicated array of rival armed groups, some with hostile intentions. While the Polish AK partisans also fought the Germans they were avidly anti-Semitic, and thus usually impossible to trust. Even worse were the German-allied, anti-Polish Ukrainian militias, as well as assorted Polish fascist groups. Even more cooperative partisan forces like the Polish AL or Russians had their own military and political agendas and weren’t entirely free of anti-Semitism. (It wasn’t uncommon for leaders of such groups to order hopelessly outnumbered and out-gunned Jewish fighters to attack advancing German tank columns.)

Eventually, the tide of battle turned , the Red Army drove the Germans from Poland and Blaichman was absorbed into the Soviet-sponsored Polish regular army. However, not long after Germany’s surrender the former partisan and his young wife sought to leave Poland. With virtually his entire extended family dead, anti-Semitism on the rise and the prospects of living under communist rule unappealing Blaichman and his wife made their way westward and eventually settled in America.

Few Jewish fighters survived the Second World War. Fewer still went on to write about their experiences. With that mind, rare memoirs like Rather Die Fighting are a rare commodity and should be treasured.

Sunday Salon

For over a month I’ve been taking part in The Sunday Salon hosted by Deb Nance at Readerbuzz. So far it’s been a huge success and I’m striving to make it a regular feature. So here’s another post. 

 

After putting aside both Stuart Jeffries’s Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School and Frank Blaichman’s Rather Die Fighting I started Adam Hochschild’s 2016 Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936–1939. So far it’s been very good.

Listening. At least for one day last week the January 6 Hearings were back at it again. In addition to the many other ongoing political developments this has provided no shortage of material for my favorite podcasts. 

Watching. Mr. Robot continues to entertain with its crazy plot twists, great writing and superb acting. I also caught a few episodes of Stranger Things. Tuesday I took in the January 6 Hearings.

Everything else. Met my professor buddies for wine yesterday at an area winery. The weather has been nice so I’ve been reading on my porch. All good things. 

 

 

 

Book Beginnings: Spain in Our Hearts by Adam Hochschild

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

Daybreak, April 4, 1938. Shivering, exhausted, and naked, two bedraggled swimmers climb out of the freezing water and onto the bank of Spain’s Ebro River, which is swollen with melted snow from the Pyrenees. Both men are Americans.

Last week I featured Stuart Jeffries’s 2016 Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School and the week before it was the 2022 memoir Free: Coming of Age at the End of History by Lea Ypi. This  week it’s Adam Hochschild’s 2016 book Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936–1939.

While not one of my original 20 Books of Summer I’m looking forward to applying Spain in Our Hearts towards Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. Back in April I featured his excellent 1998 book King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. So far Spain in Our Hearts has been as good as, or perhaps even better than his earlier book. Chances it, both it and King Leopold’s Ghost will end up making my year-end list of Favorite Nonfiction. It also goes well with a gin and tonic.

20 Books of Summer: Free by Lea Ypi

In all the years of writing my blog I’ve featured just two books by an Albania writer. In 2012 it was Spring Flowers, Spring Frost and the following year The Fall of Stone City, both by Nobel laureate Ismail Kadare. With over two dozen of his works translated into English, there was a good chance if I featured anything by an Albania author it would be something by Kadare. But recently a new Albanian writer has taken the stage. In January of this year Lea Ypi’s memoir Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History was released in the United States generating considerable acclaim. After reading favorable things about it on both The Captive Reader and What’s Nonfiction I knew I had to give it a chance. Then a week or so ago I was in the mood to read something for Rose City Reader‘s European Reading Challenge so I downloaded a copy through Overdrive. This book is definitely worth the hype and should easily make my year-end list of Favorite Nonfiction. (Just yesterday Rennie of What’s Nonfiction named Free to her list of “10 New Release Favorites of the Year So Far.”)

For close to half a century the small Adriatic nation was ruled with an iron fist by Enver Hoxha, a Stalinist dictator hell-bent on running the country according to his uncompromising communist vision. Freedoms of religion, expression and the press were nonexistent, as was private enterprise. Political parties other than the country’s ruling communists were outlawed. Over time this puritanical approach became too much for even Albania’s communist allies. Starting with the USSR and its satellites in the mid-1950s one by one they severed ties with Albania with the last one, China breaking off relations in 1978. Rejecting both the capitalist West and the “revisionist” Socialist Bloc an ever defiant Albania stood alone and isolated.

Lea Ypi could not have come of age during a more momentous time in Albania’s history. In the mid-1980s as a school girl, Enver Hoxha, the only leader she, and much of the population has ever known died. After his death, things slightly loosed up a bit. Her family, like others were allowed brief visits abroad, but the nation’s new communist leaders enacted no sweeping reforms. But in an isolated nation where empty Coke cans thoughtless discarded by visiting tourists were treasured by impoverished Albanians and prominently displayed like expensive status symbols  something even as simple as a plastic air sickness bag mystified young Lea on her first trip outside the country.

What makes sets Free apart from other memoirs of life under communist rule is you see all this monumental history unfold through the eyes of an innocent child. Over the course of the memoir you learn just how oppressive life was under Albania’s communist overlords as one by one the white lies and not so white lies she was fed by her parents and other adults are gradually exposed. (Like the euphemism “university” used in place of prison.) The end result is a fast-paced read that at times feels surreal.

Albania, through fits and starts, attempted its path towards democracy and free market capitalism while coinciding with the author’s own journey towards adulthood. Whether or not her nation can ultimately achieve this goal is unclear, but in the end she left Albania to attend college abroad and never returned. With no small amount of irony looks back and compares her country’s rocky attempts to shed its communist past and recast itself as “European” as having much in common with Albania’s much earlier struggles to build a socialist state that would serve as a springboard towards an eventual communist utopia. Both were blind faith exercises with the understanding today’s painful sacrifices will help create a freer and more equitable tomorrow. Perhaps only time will tell which path ultimately was best.