A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea by Melissa Fleming
2016 Book Challenge- A Book You’ve Read at Least Once
I just realized, about two hours ago, that today is the last day of April. How did that happen? It seems like March was just wrapping up. Part of my “where did April go?” issue stems from the fact that I was on work travel to Vietnam for three weeks of the month, so they were a weird “limbo” time that made the month just disappear. Being a solo-traveler for a good part of the month gave me some great reading time, plus the abundance of coffee shops around Ho Chi Minh City provided the perfect ambiance to settle in with a good book time and time again, so in April I finished fourteen books, many that deserve discussion, but in sticking with the end of the month wrap up for the reading challenge, this month’s topic will be “a book you’ve read at least once.”
Although not the intended topic for the month, this ended up being a perfect fit because of the work we are doing in the consular section at the US embassy in Kuala Lumpur. Since Embassy Sana’a (Yemen) closed a bit over a year ago, our embassy has seen a dramatic increase in the number of Yemeni cases we are dealing with, both in terms of immigrant visas, as well as American Citizen Services for Yemeni-Americans. We have three staff members who used to work in Sana’a, who have joined us here in Kuala Lumpur, and are a blessing to our section in many ways. Chatting with one of these fantastic ladies earlier in the month, she recommended I read I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced by Nujood Ali and Delphine Minoui, with Linda Coverdale (translator). I first read this book several years ago and honestly didn’t remember a lot of the details of Nujood’s story, but I had given it only two stars on GoodReads and I remember being frustrated with sparse narration of the story. I am not sure if that is the only reason I gave it just two stars, but at the time I may have found much of the story difficult to comprehend on a human/emotional level.
When my colleague recommended the book, I thought not only was this a perfect tie-in with the work I was doing at the embassy, but I instantly knew it would be my book challenge book of the month! I am not a huge re-reader of books, not because I don’t love the stories, but because I can’t help but pick up the newest publications, so my old favorites get pushed back as my to-read list fills up each month with all the great things coming out right now. This was a great way to go back and read a book again, and in this case, changed my entire opinion of the story.
My new connection to Yemen and my regular interactions with Yemeni people let me see Nujood’s tale through a whole new light. Yes, the narration was still sparse and the ending was not satisfying on a literary level (of course, what happened in the end is what happened and I don’t want a false-ending, but I think more follow-up and more of an ending would have benefited the final publication), I found the story itself to be much more powerful this time around. The bravery exhibited by Nujood, a ten year old child, is astounding. Not only did she have to fight against tribal customs and family rituals, but she confronted government itself- never an easy task regardless of age/nationality. The risks she took to save herself were immense and the fact that she was able to find the right people at the right time amazing. (The first time I read the book, I think I found this too coincidental to be entirely accurate, but with a new perspective on the country, I was less bothered by this detail on my re-read.)
What I find most fascinating about this month’s challenge read is just how differently I see this book the second time through. It backs up the idea that one never really reads the same book again, as each time we are in a different place in our lives, bringing a different perspective to the narrative at hand. The first time I read this book, I was not at all thrilled. I didn’t hate it, but was probably not recommending it to others. The tables have turned. I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced is a short book, fewer than two hundred pages, so can be read in a day or two. It is a fascinating look at a country and culture that are not well-known by most Americans (how many could point to Yemen on a map?) which can speak to a variety of readers. I highly recommend this one to just about anyone.
In Search of the End of the Sidewalk’s 2016 Reading Challenge
_____ A book published this year– (A Doubter’s Almanac by Ethan Canin)
_____A book you can finish in a day- (When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi)
_____A book you’ve been meaning to read
_____ A book recommended to you by a librarian
_____ A book you should have read in school
_____ A book chosen for you by your spouse/partner, best friend, child or sibling
_____ A book published before you were born
_____ A book that was banned at some point (A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess)
_____ A book you abandoned previously
_____ A book you own but have never read
_____ A book that intimidates you
_____ A book you’ve read at least once (I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced by Nujood Ali)
Heartbreaking. It’s the one word that best wraps up Regina Calcaterra’s 2013 memoir of growing up on Long Island with a mother who was truly a monster and a social services system that was broken, leaving five children to raise themselves and each other.
With five kids from five fathers, Cookie is hardly an ideal mother-figure, but add in untreated mental illness, alcoholism and a propensity to physically and verbally lash out at anything in her path and you’ve created a nightmare of a home. Regina, the middle child of the five, lives her childhood being bounced from home to home, staying in foster homes for a time here and there, only to have her mother win back custody time and time again. As the product of the man her mother was most hurt by, Regina bears the brunt of her mother’s anger, being lashed with a belt, hung from a closet rod, kicked and punched and continuously referred to as a slut and a whore from as young as she can remember. Although Regina tries to run away a few times, she realizes that she has to be home to protect her younger siblings, caring for them when Cookie disappears for months on end.
Until, in a moment of pain and utter exhaustion, Regina finally gives in and tells the authorities the true extent of the abuse at home. When she finally comes clean, her family of five siblings, who have lied and stolen and worked hard to stay together as a unit, are separated, which is exactly what they had been working to avoid. Having been the one who “told,” Regina carries with her a massive guilt, as it’s not too long before the social services system returns the two youngest kids to Cookie, at which time Rosie, the baby of the family, takes Regina’s place as the ultimate scapegoat, enduring humiliating abuse and degradation for years.
Not able to do anything to help her younger brother and sister, Regina follows the advice of some caring teachers who remind her that education is the only way out of the life she was raise in. She works hard through high school and eventually gets accepted to university, where her life is filled with classes, the gymnastics team and working multiple jobs to be able to not only support herself, but secretly send money to Rosie, who is now living in horrible conditions in Idaho with Cookie and her newest male companion.
It’s heartbreaking and unimaginable that an human being could treat another in such a vile way, but Regina and her siblings are an amazing story of a family who does its best to look out for each other, individuals who pursue their own paths to a happier life and one woman who works hard to become a part of the system that failed her as a child, empowered to make the changes needed so that future foster kids don’t have to suffer the way she did.
This was another midnight-nothing-to-read library download for me. (It’s what happens when I don’t have to set an alarm and I finish a book with nothing pre-downloaded. I go to the Boise Public Library e-books page, sort through the “now available” titles until I find something random that look interesting and off I go. It’s a bit like playing Russian roulette with literature!) Not coming off a recommended reading list, a new release list or a review from a friend, this turned out to be a good pick. Regina Calcaterra’s Etched in Sand: A True Story of Five Siblings Who Survived an Unspeakable Childhood on Long Island is not an easy read, but one that reminds us all that it is possible to overcome the odds, even when the chances seem impossibly slim, earning it:
In Search of the End of the Sidewalk has been slightly neglected for the last few weeks, as I’ve been on home leave, back in Idaho, which was the plan all along. I rarely blog when I am actually on the road, but that doesn’t excuse the horrible abandonment inflicted upon the “Book Musings” section of the blog. It is on my mind with each book I read, but I get so excited to pick up the next book in my pile that I never get the previous review actually written. But, this last week, I read a book that has forced me back into my book reviews, for better or worse. Now that I am back in the book reviewing saddle, expect to see book posts a bit more frequently.
Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman was the book that reignited my passion for writing about books, but sadly, not because it was an overwhelmingly positive experience. Much the opposite. I was excited to read this memoir, which was the book club pick for June’s gathering at the consulate in Chengdu. I knew I wouldn’t still be in the country for the meeting, but the book intrigued me and I didn’t want to be left out. In retrospect, I should have cut my Chengdu book club ties and just walked away.
Based on her travels from Hong Kong to mainland China in the late 1980s, I looked forward to Gilman’s book giving me an earlier glimpse into China, where I have just finished up four years of living. Instead, I got just over 300 pages of whining, complaining and generally horrible behavior by a couple of American young women.
Yes, foreign travel can be frustrating and trying, but Susan and her co-traveler, Claire, spend weeks taking advantage of both their fellow travelers and the locals they meet along the way. Their privileged American upbringing quickly becomes apparent, but throughout the first few chapters I let it slide, thinking the moral of the book was going to be that travel gives the wanderer a new perspective on her blessings and makes one humble and more open to new experiences. If that was where the book was headed, I might have been able to forgive their trespasses, their disloyalty and overall lack of self-awareness. But, that lesson never seemed to come to fruition.
While Claire pirouetted and sashayed her way across the Middle Kingdom, slowly losing her mind, Susan spent her down time wrapped up in either the literal arms of a stranger or blaming Claire for her quickly deteriorating mental state. This breakdown becomes the main storyline of the book (not at all what I expected from a narrative labeled as a travel memoir), but even as the tale draws to an end, I never feel like readers are given an accurate retelling of what really happened. With such a massive upheaval becoming the crux of the story arc, I’d still like to know what caused the chaos. (As a traveler and a huge fan of travel writing, I’ve got my guesses, but the book does nothing to answer these unaddressed questions.)
The only saving grace of this memoir is the writing itself. While occasionally over the top with the number of ballet moves performed on a single page by dearly declining Claire, Gilman does a good job of evoking what a newly opened China would have looked like, smelled like and felt like. The descriptions of everything from communal squatty toilets to the state run hotels rang very true to me and I appreciated her recollection of the minutiae that make a foreign land unique.
Overall, I just could not get on board with Susan Jane Gilman’s Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven and am glad I didn’t spend more than the $4 I did to buy it used at Hastings. Without giving too much away in terms of plot, I just can’t forgive these two young ladies for their behavior towards other people. Yes, they were young and naïve when it came to the ways of the world, but that doesn’t excuse them for treating others as merely stepping stones on their pathway, to be literally left behind when they are no longer useful. Only the better than average writing of Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven saved Gilman’s memoir from the one-shell ranking, with that barely squeaking it into a rating of: