The Girl in the Picture by Denise Chong

One of the most famous photographs in the world adorns the cover of this book – a young girl running, naked, her face contorted in pain and fear as the blast of napalm highlights the background.

Kim Phuc

This was Kim Phuc, a nine-year-old South Vietnamese girl whose village was bombed in a misplaced air attack, and this is the story of her life from before the attack until she’s living in Canada after defecting with her husband. It is also a story about the futility and horror of war, and the effects of war on countries, communities, families and individuals.

book

Nick Ut, an Associated Press photographer, is the man who took the famous photo and, at the same time, was one of Kim’s rescuers. Ut, soldiers and another journalist stopped Kim as she ran past screaming – her skin was bubbling and peeling, chunks of flesh falling off. She radiated heat. At the request of Kim’s father, Ut stalled his deadline (despite having a gut feeling that his was a sensational photo) and took her to hospital, an act which  saved Kim’s life.

Kim remained in hospital for months before returning home, and going back to school. Her back was severely scarred from 3rd degree burns, and she was to live in hideous pain and with excruciating headaches for her whole life. She could have  slipped into anonymity if it hadn’t been for a German photographer who tracked her down and alerted her presence to the authorities in Hanoi. For years afterward, Kim was used for propaganda purposes by the government.

In 1986, she was sent to Cuba to study and further the ‘Communist cause’. She attended the University of Havana, where she met and married another Vietnamese student. In 1992, they defected to Canada where they have lived ever since. She reconnected with Nick Ut and has become a Christian, a faith which she says has helped her cope with bitterness and the pain.

Grownup

 

The above is merely a brief summary of Kim’s remarkable life, however the book is so much more than that. It also focuses on the Vietnam war in general. I found it interesting to read about the war from the Vietnamese side – in fact, to read about the war in general, as I don’t know much about it – and to see how that famous photo changed attitudes towards the war. Chong writes in a very accessible style and moves easily between the intimate details of Kim’s life and a portrait of Vietnamese society during and after the war. I highly recommend the book.

Postscript: In Miami in September 2015, Kim started a course of laser treatment that hopefully should smooth and soften the thick scar tissue that runs down her back and left arm, in the hope that it will help with the chronic pain that Kim lives with: Kim Phuc laser treatments

 

 

Behind the beautiful forevers by Katherine Boo

This is Katherine Boo’s first book, however she has worked as a journalist for many years and is currently a staff reporter at The New Yorker. Her reporting on disadvantaged communities over the years led to her being awarded a Pulitzer Prize, and thus she was perfectly poised to write about ‘Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity’ (the subtitle of the book).

book cover

 

This beautifully written non-fiction book focuses on three families living in Annawadi, a slum settlement next to the luxury hotels near the Mumbai airport. Set in a time when India is starting to prosper financially, the inhabitants of Annawadi dare to hope that their lives might change for the better.

Abdul, one of the major characters, is an enterprising teenager who collects recyclable rubbish that the rich throw away, and sells it, making his family (the Husains) one of the ‘richer’ in the settlement. He is energetic, determined and an expert at sifting through rubbish; he dreams of a making a fortune.

His neighbour, Fatima, is envious of the money he earns. She is a cripple, called ‘One Leg’ by the community, however this disability does not stop her ferocious sexual appetite that her old husband can’t satisfy.

Asha, the third main character, works for a right-wing political party, and harbours ambitions of becoming a slumlord. She holds considerable sway over many of the inhabitants and takes advantage of her position through bribery and cunningness. Her daughter is Annawadi’s only college student, and Asha truly hopes her English teaching degree will earn them their way out of the slum.

Slum
Annawadi slum

With the Husain’s relative fortune, Abdul decides to increase the size of their shack and, after the building affects Fatima’s hut, she rages against the family and, out of spite, douses herself with cooking oil and sets herself alight. She dies from her injuries and the Husain family  is blamed for inciting Fatima to commit suicide. Abdul, his sister, and his father are sent to prison. Over a period of years, they are beaten, starved and denied justice. By the end of the book, the sister and father have been released but Adbul’s case still has not been resolved.

Boo visited Annawadi on and off for over three years and, despite never learning the language, she obviously immersed herself in the culture and got to understand the people. One of the strengths of this book is that her voice never comes in to it, and thus it has a novel-like quality with a seemingly omniscient narrator, allowing us to get to know and empathise with the characters. Her incredible attention to detail allows the readers to get to know the slum and its inhabitants well. At the end of the book, she explains in an epilogue the motivation for writing the book and the process of reporting etc.

As a South African reader, I found there were many aspects of the book that were familiar such as the massive income disparities and the thriving underworld, crime and corruption that exist within shack settlements in this country. Unlike Boo, however, I have never spent any meaningful amount of time in a community of that sort, and as a result, this book was a complete eye-opener. Despite its subject matter, I didn’t find it to be a totally depressing book. I would highly recommend it, and look forward to Boo’s second book which is in the process of being written.

Boo
Katherine Boo

PS: The unusual title comes from the wall that separates Annawadi from the affluent area near the airport. The wall is plastered with ads for an Italian tile company saying ‘beautiful forever …. beautiful forever …’

 

A few books I have read over the past year

I haven’t written on my blog for ages – life got in the way – but I have done tons of reading. When my mother was really ill, I found that I could only concentrate on short stories or magazines, and only recently have I started books again. However, here are a few that I have enjoyed over the past year. Only a few, as I can’t remember the titles of the others.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson: at times confusing, this is a novel based on the question ‘what if?’. Ursula is the main character and Atkinson writes her life differently each couple of chapters. Such as, what if Ursula hadn’t got married, or what if this had happened to Ursula instead. It is brilliantly conceived, well written and Atkinson holds the plot together well.Image

Dominion by CJ Sansom: It wasn’t so much the quality of the writing that I liked in this book than the idea on which it was based – what if Germany had conquered England in World War II? A novel full of intrigue and spies, a real war story.

Ancient Life by John Banville: an exquisitely written book about a man remembering the illicit affair he had with his best friend’s mother when he was a teenager, and the same time dealing the memories of his daughter’s suicide. The first sentence says it all: “Billy Gray was my best friend and I fell in love with his mother.”

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn: not nearly as good as I thought it would be, but it was gripping nonetheless.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green: this is one of those cross-over books that can be read by both teenagers and adults. It is a bit schmaltzy (about two dying teenagers), but pretty good in a tearful sort of way.

Tell The Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifke Brunt: a wonderful tale of love, art, family life and betrayal.Image

Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver: This novel brought me back to viewing Kingsolver as one of my favourite authors. Based on the flight of the Monarch butterflies from Europe to Mexico, it has a fascinatingly ‘ordinary’ main character and a good depiction of a small town affected by an outside source.

Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey: Part fairy tale, part love story, part family tale, this was a wonderfully poignant novel, well worth a read.

The Secret Race by Tyler Hamilton: This is not the sort of book I would usually read (sports biography) but I found it utterly fascinating. Tyler Hamilton rode with Lance Armstrong in his team for Tour de France and here exposes the extent to which doping was (and probably still is) going on. Mind-blowing.

The Tennis Partner by Abraham Verghese: he wrote Cutting for Stone and this book is in no way similar. One of his earlier books, it is a memoir about tennis, friendships, relationships and drugs. Not as well written as Cutting for Stone, but a fascinating read.

Thinking of a Hurricane by Martinique Stilwell: why this book has not received more press, I don’t know. When Martinique was young, her father decided that their family would sail around the world, so she, her twin brother and her parents got onto a sailing boat and set off. Her parents had never sailed before. Seven years later, Martinique got off the boat and went back to school in Alberton to fulfill her dream of becoming a doctor. A quite extraordinary tale – I don’t know how the family survived.Image

Heft by Liz Moore: A wonderful story about the unexpected relationship between a morbidly obese professor and a teenage American football student. Poignant but an easy read.

Big Brother by Lionel Shriver: although I disliked the main character (the brother) immensely, this was a fascinating look into the world of obese people and their relationships with those close to them. It is loosely based on Shriver’s own brother who died of obesity.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt: Simply the best book I have read over the past year. It’s long, a bit too long, but worth the read. She is a phenomenally good writer.

Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri: beautifully evocative story about two brothers set in India and America.

Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty: it reminded me a bit of Gone Girl, in that I expected more from it, but it was a good gripping read nonetheless.

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker: Alternating between American and China, this novel focuses on a woman going in search of her father who left when she was little. Her search takes her to China, where she discovers things about her father she never knew. An easy read, but rewarding.

Perfect by Rachel Joyce: I loved this book (despite it being called Perfect, because how does one live up to that title?). In 1972, two seconds were added to time and that made all the difference in 11-year-old Byron’s life – an accident occurs that affects him and his family’s life. I’m still not sure why it was titled Perfect.Image

Wave: Life and Memories after the Tsunami by Sonali Deraniyagala: only read this if you like reading about death and extreme tragedy. I do, and so I was fascinated by this book (in a bit of a ghoulish way, I suppose). A mother loses her children and husband in the tsunami and this memoir relates how she overcomes what has happened to her.

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini: I also felt this novel went on a bit too long, but it was beautiful and tragic, as his books always are.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier: As spooky and eerie as ever. I thoroughly enjoyed rereading it.

Short stories: I’ve read a variety of collections, mainly by Flannery O’ Connor, Grace Paley, Alice Munro, DH Lawrence, Raymond Carver. A great collection called Bloody Satisfied (local). This is How You Lose Her by Juno Diaz. Short stories are making a come back, at last. They are greatly under appreciated.Image

Dancer by Colum McCann

This is not a new book. It was published in 2003 and I picked it up mainly because the cover appealed to me (looks do count). I also loved McCann’s recent novel, Let the Whole World Spin, and thought I would give this one a try. This is a work of fiction about Rudolf Nureyev, which McCann wrote using documented facts about Nureyev’s life. So it’s about a real life, which made it more interesting, but even without that it would have been a great read.

 

 

 

English: portrait of Rudolph Nureyev
English: portrait of Rudolph Nureyev (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve always been fascinated by Nureyev, his exotic life, his talent and his unusual looks – and this novel exposes the reader to all of that, but with such skill that I could not even call this book a fictionalised biography. It is rather vignettes of Nureyev’s life, glimpses into his character, explosions of excitement, passionate descriptions of his dancing. McCann has used multiple narrators, often from the point of view of minor characters, in different settings and often I didn’t know who the narrator was until I read deeper into the chapter. Chapters vary in length, chop and change, keep the reader guessing and fascinated.

 

 

 

Nureyev does not come across as a pleasant character – he’s vain, disdainful, impetuous, rude, inconsiderate, yet dancing is everything to him, it’s that which gives his life meaning. Fascinating insights are given about his life – how he used the same shoe maker all the time as a dancer and how he kept all his old shoes; how he was gay at a time when it was illegal and he had to search for illicit sex; just how debauched his life was – it’s a miracle to me that he managed to dance like he did. His friendship with Margot Fonteyn was only a friendship, they weren’t lovers, but they merged on stage to make the perfect dancing couple. How he mingled with many famous people, how his fans adored him, how rich he became.

 

The cleverness of using different narrators is that Nureyev’s life is exposed to us in shards, so for example, McCann doesn’t tell us that Nureyev has defected – we just gather it from his family in Russia who are having to deal with the recriminations. We get to know him through the eyes of two of his lovers, and through his housekeeper.

Nureyev died of Aids in 1993, although this was not cited at the time as the cause of death.

Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn in La Bayadère.

 

 

If you like Nureyev, I would recommend this for an unusual insight into his life. If you like Colum McCann’s writing, I would also recommend it and, in fact, I think it is a good read all round. For writers, it is a useful reference for examining the effectiveness of using multiple narrators.

 

 

 

In The Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

Mussolini (left) and Hitler sent their armies ...
Image via Wikipedia

Anyone interested in history, and particularly World War II, will enjoy reading this book. Written in a very accessible way, the book tells the story of America’s first ambassador to Germany when Hitler comes into power. It is a true story and gives an outsider’s point of view of the changes happening in Germany at that time and the rise of Hitler.

No one wanted the job of ambassador to Germany in June 1933. As newly elected president, Roosevelt had to fill the position of the ambassador to a country going through a brutal revolutionary change. Eventually, he chose mild-mannered professor from Chicago, William E Dodd, who at 64 was ready for a change from his professorial life. His main ambition at that stage was to finish the book he was writing about the history of the Old South. He was looking for a job that was ‘not too demanding, yet would provide stature and a living wage and, most important, leave him plenty of time to write.’ And so he accepted the ambassadorship when Roosevelt phoned to offer him the position.

He left for Germany with his wife, son and flamboyant daughter, Martha. From then on, the book focusses on Dodd and his daughter and very little is written about the wife (also called Martha) and the son. The family were initially housed in an opulent hotel, which went against Dodd’s desire to live ‘most inconspicuously and modesty’ but he understood that the German officials would expect his standard of living to be worthy of his position. On their first night in Berlin, they saw no soldiers nor police and, as they walked through the Tiergarten (the large park in Berlin), Martha reflected:

I felt the press had badly maligned the country and I wanted to proclaim the warmth and friendliness of the people, the soft summer night with its fragrance of trees and flowers, the serenity of the streets.”

Once the family was in their official residence, so began the protocol of diplomatic entertainment, which Dodd abhorred. He was overwhelmed by the number of people and the vast cost. Protocol would have it that senior German officials were invited, so many Nazis visited their house, most of whom the Dodds found charming. For example, Dodd found Goebbels to be ‘one of the few men with a sense of humour in Germany’. Goring (I don’t know how to do the umlaut on top of the o) was considered likeable.

Someone who especially found many of the Nazis attractive was Martha. As a character, Martha is astonishing. She was considered beautiful and she was a woman who enjoyed her sexuality. She seemed to sleep with countless men and flirt with even more. Often she saw two or more men at the same time, none of whom seemed to mind. She found the Nazis attractive and this flavoured her view of Germany, in which she saw much good in what was happening. I am astounded that her parents didn’t try to curb her behaviour, but she seemed to be able to do what she wanted with whoever she wanted and became part of Berlin society.

Throughout the book, we are exposed to this dichotomy where many people thought that Germany was on a new path being led to better things, and the others who recognised the anti-Semitism that grew by the day. Dodd was unsettled by the attacks upon Americans, all of whom were Jewish. In his first meeting with Hitler, Dodd complained about the attacks, to which Hitler ‘was cordial and apologetic’.

Though the session had been difficult and strange, Dodd nonetheless left the chancellery feeling convinced that Hitler was sincere about wanting peace.

Yet Dodd soon wavered in this belief, feeling a foreboding that the path Germany was on was violent and discriminatory. Dodd made himself unpopular amongst his staff, many of whom felt he was on the wrong track with his opinion of Hitler and the Nazi party.

It would be an extremely long review were I to go through the trials and tribulations that Dodd encountered in his position as ambassador, so I will leave it to the reader, suffice to say that by 1937 the stress of the job caused Dodd to deteriorate health-wise and resign. Roosevelt was reluctant for him to leave and persuaded him to stay on six months longer. Once back in America, Dodd embarked on a campaign to raise the alarm about Hitler and his plans, and to combat the increasing drift in America towards isolationism.  He warned that ‘Hitler would be free to pursue his ambitions without armed resistance from other European democracies‘.

Dodds Presents Award to Normandy Veteran
Dodds Presents Award to Normandy Veteran (Photo credit: DUP Photos)

You know the dreadful outcome of that warning. It seemed as though Dodd had not taken a strong enough stand to help prevent the events from happening, yet the book concludes with the sentence:

‘In the end, Dodd proved to be exactly what Roosevelt had wanted, a lone beacon of American freedom and hope in  a land of gathering darkness’.

Hitler, however, must have felt he was a threat. Years after the war, old documents were discovered in which conversations between Hitler and his men came to light. In one of them, Hitler berates his colleagues by saying, “To think that there was nobody in all this ministry who could get his clutches on the daughter of that American ambassador, Dodd – and yet she wasn’t difficult to approach.’

I would whole heartedly recommend this book for anyone interested in history.

“Shoot the Damn Dog” – she’s gone barking mad

Winston Churchill called it his “black dog”, some call it a “black hole” , it has been  called “the noonday demon”, and Sally Brompton just wanted to shoot the damn thing. Once a successful editor of Elle magazine, Sally suffered from such a bad depression that, at one stage, she was unable to leave her flat and was drinking two bottles of wine a day. She tried to commit suicide twice and was hospitalised twice. Both the alcohol and suicide attempts were a desperate wish just to get rid of the dark cloak of depression that covered her.

I found this book to be a fascinating account of her depression – she writes about it openly and frankly, with no self-pity and no attempt to glamourise it either. She says that looking back on it, there were signs that depression was creeping up on her, such as a grief and sadness welling in her; she pushed those feelings aside, as she had such a successful life, it wasn’t possible that she could be feeling sad.

Unfortunately for her, once clinical depression was diagnosed, she seemed to have drug-resistant depression and was unable to find an anti-depressant that could lift her out of it. The overwhelming severity and length of the depression was what led her to drink and pills. So, as well as having to deal with her damn dog, she had to go into rehab for alcoholism. Now that’s a bummer.

The book, though, doesn’t only cover her story, but also discusses depression in an easily accessible way, which makes me think that this would be a good book for anyone to read, not just those who battle with depression. Personally, I found it such a comfort to read, having had a pack bloody rottweilers snapping at my ankles at times. It’s always good to know there are others out there who have had the same experience, for, as Sally puts it, depression is such a lonely illness.

What does amaze me about her story is that she seems to go to such disasterous therapists – she must be a very intelligent woman, yet she was unable to see how bad some of them were. To be fair to her, she writes that she was in such a bad way that she couldn’t make any decisions. Her psychiatrist, also, doesn’t seem to tackle the problem with much urgency, but perhaps that is just how she writes about him.

The psychiatric units she goes into sound horrendous, with bars on all the windows and even the odd screaming person, like in horror movies. Both the ones I’ve been in have been positively luxurious compared with the ones she describes. But then, she meets some wonderful characters in the insititutions, who become great friends of hers over time.

Through her awful depression, she somehow managed to keep her relationship with her daughter, Molly, going (who was about 10 at the time and a very mature sounding 10 year old, but I suppose she had to be in that situation). Sally did everything possible to look after Molly. She also had a good relationship with her ex-husband, who looked after Molly when Sally was physically unable to because of the crippling effects of the depression and the side-effects of the drugs she tried.

I could go on for ages about this book, as I could relate to virtually everything in it – except for the drinking and the terrible side-effects of the anti-depressants. It is extremely well-written and I would recommend it to anyone who has battled with depression or anyone else who wants to understand the illness.

Mow the damn dog down with a machine gun, I say.