In a previous blog post, I listed books from Africa and the Caribbean and Central America that have opened my eyes to the lives of people in other parts of the world. As promised, here are my mini-reviews of a few books from Asia and the Middle East that do the same.
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives of People in North Korea, by Barbara Demick. We’ve probably all heard about what seems like crazy behavior on the part of North Korea’s megalomaniac leaders. What we rarely hear about is how their behavior affects the lives of ordinary people in the country. Demick spent time with six individuals who defected to South Korea to learn about their lives before, and the result is a riveting and harrowing account spanning 15 years of life in North Korea during the worst of the famine that killed one-fifth of the population.
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Clash of Two Cultures, by Anne Faridan. Although this compelling true story doesn’t actually take place in Asia, it is about the Hmong people who came to the United States as refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, and one family’s encounter with an American medical system that didn’t understand their culture, customs and beliefs. The title refers to the translation of the Hmong description of epilepsy, the illness that afflicts a Hmong child who is the center of the “clash of two culture.” The book is now required reading for many American students entering healthcare professions – as it should be.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo. Pulitzer-prize winning reporter Boo follows the lives of several individuals and families who live in a makeshift settlement called Annawadi in the shadow of the hotels near the Mumbai airport. While most people probably know in their heads that wealth is distributed very unequally in countries like India, this book puts a human face on some of those who work hard to survive with very little in the way of economic resources and opportunities.
The Lizard Cage, by Karen Connelly. This novel is difficult to read, to say the list. The lizard cage of the title is a prison in Burma/Myanmar where the main character, Teza is imprisoned in solitary confinement for singing protest songs against the dictatorship. One of the ways Teza occupies his time in solitary is by enjoying and observing the lizards that also inhabit his cell. He develops a relationship with an orphan boy who lives in the prison when the boy helps to delivers his food and empty his latrine bucket. The brutality of the prison – not only for Teza but for others caught in the oppressive system – is described in unrelentingly horrific detail but the book is redeemed by the story of two individuals who have enormous reserves of resiliency and demonstrated their essential humanity and dignity despite their circumstances.
The Middle East
Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden Lives of Islamic Women, by Geraldine Brooks. I read this book soon after it first came out in 1995 – before 9/11 changed everyone’s consciousness of the Islamic world – and was immediately mesmerized by the stories of the women. I felt like I learned so much from this book. Clearly, there are radical and extremist Muslims out there, but so many Muslims are simply and sincerely trying to live peaceful lives committed to their understanding of “right religion.” The stereotype is that Muslim women are oppressed and repressed, and while I’m still convinced that’s true for a lot of Muslim women (as it is for non-Muslims as well), Brooks provides significant insight into why and how many Muslim women don’t believe they are at all oppressed.
Reading Lolita In Tehran: A Memoir of Books, by Azar Nafisi. This book presents another view of Muslim women’s lives, this time in Iran in the years following the revolution when policies against women and anything seeming remotely “western” were repressive. The title itself drew me in, especially since I had written a paper in graduate school about Nabokov’s classic and controversial novel, Lolita. Nafisi had been a university professor in Tehran but resigned because of the oppressive policies. She subsequently invited seven of her female students to join her in her home to study Western literature – books that had been banned by the government. Not only did they discuss in significant academic detail great works of Western literature; they also used the time in Nafisi’s home to talk about their lives and what it was like to live under strict Islamic rule.
Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Technically, because the author is Somali-born, this book probably should have been in the Africa section of my mini-reviews. But because it is another book about a Muslim woman (and frankly, because I forgot about it when I was writing the previous blog post!), I’m including it here. I think I first became aware of the practice in some countries in northern Africa of genital mutilation (or female circumcision) when I read Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy many years ago. In Infidel, Ali describes her strict Muslim family, her experience of female circumcision, being beaten, escaping from a forced marriage, trying unsuccessfully to help her sister also escape, and finally seeking asylum in Europe where she became a well-known advocate for Muslim women’s rights. She continues to be considered an enemy of Islam.
When Heaven and Earth Changed Places, by Le Le Hayslip and Jay Wurts. Hayslip left Vietnam when she was about 20 years old and married an American. She was born into a peasant family in a village in central Vietnam. When American helicopters landed in her village, she and her family were caught between the American soldiers and the Vietcong. Hayslip survived the death of family members, extreme brutality, and prostitution. Almost 20 years after she left Vietnam, she returned to her home country. Stories from her early life during the war years are interwoven with her reunion with surviving family members and visits to places she had known as a young women.The book is a moving account of what it was like for so many ordinary people during the Vietnam War who were simply trying to make a living and got caught in the middle between warring factions.
Listing these few books seems like such an inadequate way to demonstrate the power of books and reading to open our eyes to other worlds beyond our own. Also, I’m keenly aware that this list and the previous one seem to suggest that I read mostly depressing books about how cruel people are to each other, but that’s not the whole story! For example, in the first list of books set in Africa, I didn’t include one of my favorite current series: Alexander McCall Smith’s No. I Ladies Detective Agency books. Some might consider these “fluffy” novels, especially since McCall Smith seems to be able to churn out a new one almost every year. But they’re wonderful and fun novels that capture a slice of ordinary African life with accuracy, charm and respect – a good antidote to the dark side of life I often read about.