The ‘Sherman’ in the title of this non-fiction book is a donkey, and this book is literally one about the author running with Sherman. Chris McDougall wrote the bestselling book, Born to Run, in which he tells of going in search of the greatest long-distance runners in the world – the elusive Tarahumara Indians of Mexico – who help him overcome a foot injury he had been told would prevent him from ever running again. I’m not a runner, but McDougall is a great storyteller.
When McDougall comes across a mistreated donkey in his neighbourhood (in Pennsylvania, near an Amish community), he decides to adopt it to nurse it back to health. On arrival, however, Sherman is worse than he realised – as well as being malnourished, depressed, stinking, and in a terrible condition, Sherman’s hooves have curled up like long nails from months of standing locked up in a soggy pen, making it virtually impossible for him to walk. Even once the extra growth has been removed with a hacksaw, Sherman remains unresponsive. The vet who cleans him up tells McDougall,
‘Look … He’s been abused and abandoned, and that can make any animal sick with despair. You need to give this animal a purpose. You need to find him a job.’
And so starts the incredible tale of how McDougall starts running with Sherman, training him up for the World Championship Pack Burro Race in Colorado. Who ever thought there was even such a thing as burro racing? It dates back to 19th-century-silver-mining days in Colorado when prospectors loaded their donkey with tools and food, and headed into the mountains in search of the precious metal. There are a number of races throughout the summer series in Colorado, including the World Championship into which McDougall enters himself and Sherman.
Donkey are notoriously stubborn – Sherman is no exception – and one of the delights of this book is the descriptions of the various methods with which McDougall gets Sherman running – including the help of two high-spirited goats, the locals from the Amish running community (who run with all their black clothes on), and McDougall’s wife and friends. Among these is the son of a friend who has dropped out of college because of severe depression. He and Sherman bond particularly well and both exercise themselves out of their debilitating moods.
Against all odds, Sherman and McDougall run and finish the race, a feat which made me want to stand up and whoop with delight.
While the book concentrates on Sherman’s recovery from abusive treatment, it also highlights how exposure to nature and exercise can have a profound effect on mood and motivation, and the incredible nature of the human-animal relationship. Overall, it is a delightful story – never sentimental – that made me feel happier for having read it.
Subtitled Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, The Lonely City is a fascinating hybrid of memoir, philosophy and biography in which Laing explores New York city by way of art in an attempt to understand her state of loneliness.
When in her mid-thirties Laing finds herself alone in New York (having moved for a relationship that failed), she falls into a deep loneliness, the kind that can happen in a big city. She manages to explore this state with curiousity, observing her behaviour in a non-judgmental fashion.
It was the sensation of need that frightened me the most, as if I had lifted the lid on an unappeasable abyss. I stopped eating very much and my hair fell out and lay noticeably on the floor, adding to my disquiet … I was keeling towards the midpoint of my thirties, an age at which female aloneness is no longer socially sanctioned and carries with it a persistent whiff of strangeness, deviance and failure.
As someone who has has experienced loneliness post-divorce and when my children left home (sometimes hit sideways by it, left breathless, puzzled as to how I can feel so lonely in my home town), I found Laing’s descriptions of this state to be exquisite in their accuracy:
What does it feel like to be lonely? It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast. It feels shameful and alarming … It hurts, in the way that feelings do …
My life felt empty and unreal, and I was embarrassed by its thinness, the way one might be embarrassed about wearing a stained or threadbare piece of clothing. I felt like I was in danger of vanishing.
Stuck in an apartment in which she can’t close the blinds, watching other people live out their lives in front of her, but aware that they can also look in and watch her, Laing is reminded of Edward Hopper’s painting, particularly one:
I knew what I looked like. I looked like a woman in a Hopper painting. The girl in ‘Automat’ maybe …
As a way of trying to understanding her loneliness and seeking solace in the experiences of others, Laing explores the lives and works of four artists: Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger and David Wojnarowicz. All of these artists were lonely or reclusive, had no intimate relationships or had intimacy issues, and all lived in the city that didn’t care whether you lived or died. She writes about their lives with the accuracy of a biographer, always in light of loneliness and solitude; she describes and interprets their work as an art lover.
When I read the book, I had to have my phone or laptop nearby to google the works of art; I was only familiar with a few of them. I didn’t know much about any of these artists – a little about Andy Warhol – and was struck by how tragic their lives were, by how violent and disturbing some of the art is, and by the cruelty humans can inflict on each other and on themselves.
In the course of describing the artists’ works and lives, Laing introduces a range of other personalities, such as Klaus Nomi, Greta Garbo, Diane Arbus and Zoe Leonard among others. As a result, she covers a wide range of topics, including AIDS, music, the role of cities in providing space for the lonely and the homeless, and the disadvantages of gentrification. She also researches loneliness as a subject on its own, drawing on authors such as Virginia Woolf and the psychologist Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, the first pioneer into the study of loneliness, who said of it:
Loneliness feels like such a shameful experience, so counter to the lives we are supposed to lead, that it becomes increasingly inadmissible, a taboo state whose confession seems destined to cause others to turn and flee.
In her explorations on the subject, Laing considers the role of technology in our lives, looking at its dual function – offering relief to the lonely by giving them a private bubble in which to sit when in public, while allowing to them interact with others when alone. She writes about Josh Harris, one of the early pioneers of the internet in the late 1990s:
… Harris predicted the internet’s social function, and that he did so in part by intuiting the power of loneliness as a driving force. He understood the strength of people’s longing for contact and attention and he also grasped the counterweight of their fear of intimacy, their need for screens of every kind.
Laing’s exploration into these four artists, and other individuals, did not cure her loneliness per se, however she acknowledges that (when referring to a photographic portrait of Warhol):
… like Wojnarowicz’s diaries and Klaus Nomi’s voice, that painting of Warhol was one of the things that most medicated my own feelings of loneliness, giving me a sense of the potential beauty present in a frank declaration that one is human and as such subject to need.
She concludes the book with the thought that she doesn’t necessarily think the answer to loneliness is to meet someone:
I think it’s about two things: learning how to befriend yourself and understanding that many of the things that seems to afflict us as individuals are in fact a result of larger forces of stigma and exclusion, which can and should be resisted.
The Lonely City is such a wide-ranging book that I cannot begin adequately to cover all the topics here, and it is one that deserves a second read as it is richly detailed. In the way she applies herself so intelligently, philosophically and personally to an array of subjects, Laing reminds me of another of my favourite authors, Rebecca Solnit. Perhaps more than with other books however, I related on a personal level to the basic tenet of The Lonely City – the state of loneliness and its implications for oneself and society – and I was in all other ways was fascinated, stimulated and deeply moved.
This is one of the most enchanting books I have read; a gentle, contemplative book that chronicles Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s year-long relationship with a snail.
In her 30s, Bailey contracts a debilitating neurological disorder that leaves her bedridden, barely able to sit up, let alone stand. She has to move from her farm house into a studio flat to be closer to help, leaving her dog and her outdoor lifestyle behind. Confined to bed, she experiences a loneliness that chronic illness can bring, when friends are unsure how to be around you, and she starts slipping into a dark place in her mind, experiencing panic attacks and great despondency.
One day a friend brings her a potted field violet on which she has purposefully put a woodland snail for Bailey. She is left bemused, wondering what on earth she is to do with it. Why should she enjoy a snail? How could she look after it when she couldn’t look after herself? She couldn’t even return it to the woods.
When the snail starts to crawl out of the pot that evening, Bailey thinks she won’t see it again and falls asleep, but when she wakes, she sees it has returned to the same place and that the envelope nearby has a few small squares chewed out of it. Thinking somewhat guiltily that the snail can’t live on paper alone, she puts a few flower petals near it and later, in the silence that fills the room, she hears the snail chewing on them.
“The sound was of someone very small munching celery continuously … the tiny intimate sound of the snail’s eating gave me a distinct feeling of companionship and shared space.”
And so the relationship between Bailey and the snail begins. With a new companion, as unlikely as it is, Bailey refocuses her attention from herself to the snail and in this way, her illness becomes more bearable and less lonely. As the snail is nocturnal and Bailey an insomniac, she spends hours observing its behaviour, and the tenderness and skill with which she writes about the snail makes this unusual subject a joy to read about.
“Each evening the snail awoke and with astonishing poise moved gracefully to the rim of the pot and peered over, surveying the strange country that lay ahead. Pondering its circumstance with a regal air, as if from the turret of a castle, it waved its tentacles first this way and then that, as though responding to a distant melody.”
Concerned about the snail’s living space, she buys a terrarium and recreates a woodland world for it to live in; she finds out what sort of food snails eat and feeds it mushrooms and egg shells. She starts reading widely about molluscs to learn more about her unexpected roommate, and the more she discovers about the common snail, the more respect she gains for it. She trawls gastropod literature, from Darwin to poetry to modern-day scientific research, making this as much a natural history or educational book as it is a memoir.
“A snail has an interesting life; its courtship is remarkable, its various natural abilities are astounding, it has a memory, and, just like humans, it likes a comfortable place to sleep and very good food.”
It is a relationship of observation; Bailey doesn’t anthropomorphise the snail – she contemplates giving it a name, but in the end decides ‘snail’ is the best moniker. She doesn’t touch or stroke the snail or make demands of it; she watches it and learns. In this way, I also learned. Who knew that most snails are hermaphrodites, and that snails have a mating courtship? Who knew that after fertilisation, they can hold off having babies for months? Bailey didn’t – until her snail unexpectedly lays eggs and her room turns into a snail crèche, hosting 118 baby snails at once stage.
Having had a chronic fatigue illness similar to, though not as severe as, Bailey’s, and being able to relate to the profound loneliness of an often-misunderstood condition, I found her experience almost unbearably touching, and admired her ability not to slide into self-pity at any stage, and to stay in the beauty of the moment.
This is a short book, but a physically beautiful one with small line drawings of snails trawling through its pages. Its quiet meditative tone makes it a soothing read, and left me feeling that something good still exists in the world when humans and nature can connect in this tender, trusting way.
This is a startling memoir of a man who escaped a life of misery and starvation in North Korea, where he had lived for 36 years under the brutal reign of Kim Il-sung and then his son, Kim Jong-il.
Masaji Ishikawa was born in Japan to a Korean father and Japanese mother. By virtue of being half-Korean, he and his family were treated with disdain and he was bullied at school. His father, perhaps because of the humiliation he suffered in the workplace for being Korean, took his frustration out on his wife and beat her regularly while Ishikawa and his sisters watched, unable to do anything. Despite this, the family lived a comfortable life, Ishikawa began to make friends and enjoyed himself in his own small way.
Life changed, however, when in 1958 the communist North Korean leader, Kim Il-sung, urged all Koreans to come home, promising them a better life in ‘paradise on earth’. Ishikawa’s father, lured by the idea of living a more lucrative life in a society where he would be accepted, packed up the family and returned home to Korea with them.
Here they were sent to a small village where Ishikawa soon learned that communist North Korea was ‘hell on earth’. Having expected excellent education, a better standard of living and abundant food, they soon realised that none of this would ever happen. Kim Il-sung was a ruthless dictator who ran the country as a brutal totalitarian regime. In a cruel turn of fate, as Ishikawa’s family was now considered Japanese, they were treated with contempt as the lowest caste in North Korea. The only positive in the move was that Ishikawa’s father stopped beating his mother and became a gentler person towards all of them.
Ishikawa tells the details of his life in North Korea in a straight-forward, honest, and not overly-dramatic manner, and in this way makes the narrative an excellent tool to carry such an horrific story. The translation from Japanese is well done and his voice stays authentic. It is impossible to relate in total here the brutality of his family’s existence, which seems to worsen with every chapter. His family was initially given a house but, because they were Japanese, it was burned down and they had to fashion a makeshift shack out of spare wood. His family lived in complete squalor (like the majority of the population) with no heating, no new clothes, and hardly any food – the government was supposed to supply food parcels but only did so sporadically; or any food that was successfully farmed was taken away. Ishikawa’s father found it difficult to find work and so their income was virtually non-existent. His mother foraged the land every day for something to eat and they often managed to stay alive by eating boiled bark and weeds.
The tragic ludicrousness of the North Korean regime is often highlighted by Ishikawa, one of the examples being the farming methods forced upon farmers. They were instructed to plant the rice seedlings as close together as possible, in order to produce large quantities of rice. However, the plants were unable to flourish because of being squashed together, and crop after crop failed, only adding to the dire food shortages.
Ishikawa never bought into the propaganda with which so many citizens were brainwashed, however he went along with it, for to cross it was to lose one’s life or be sent to a concentration camp.
“When you find yourself caught in a crazy system dreamed up by dangerous lunatics, you just do what you’re told.”
Despite his intelligence, he was never able to get a good job because he was Japanese, and was finally reduced to working in the coal mines; the dirtiest, hardest labour. He married – an arranged marriage – and had children who proved to be a constant source of anguish for him as he was unable to provide a good life for them.
When Kim Il-sung died, his son Kim-Jong il took over and, although it seemed not possible, life became even worse for North Koreans. Ishikawa’s family – and others – literally started starving to death:
“Ever since setting foot in North Korea more than thirty years before, I’d known nothing but hunger. Everyone had been halfway to starvation for decades. But things had taken a turn for the worse starting in 1991. From 1991 until Kim Il-sung’s death in 1994, extremely cold weather wreaked havoc on the fragile food supply.”
People became walking skeletons, Ishikawa’s family included, and he watched his children become weaker and thinner, and then his mother die of hunger, her exhausted body unable to keep working.
After 36 years of this hell on earth, Ishikawa decided he had to escape to Japan and then try to get his family out of North Korea. He knew that the only alternative was death. Despite his weakened state, he eventually left North Korea by swimming over the Yalu River in the dead of night, through a ‘river of darkness’; he was knocked unconsciousness by a rock in the flooding waters and landed up barely alive on the banks on the Chinese side of the river. Once well enough, he contacted the Japanese authorities who negotiated with the Chinese to bring him safely into Japan.
The tragedy of his story is that, once in Japan, Ishikawa hoped to earn enough money to get his family out of North Korea. In an ironic twist, however, he was unable to find substantial enough work as he was now regarded as being North Korean. He never saw his family again.
The book – however horrific the details – is a testament to Ishikawa’s resilience and determination to stay alive with dignity. This needs to be read by Westerners – in a time where North Korea appears in the news as being ‘normal’ enough to walk into the Winter Olympics with South Korea, this story is a stark reminder of what life really is like in North Korea. Perhaps, too, it serves as a warning of what a country under a populist leader is in danger of becoming.
After graduating from Harvard with an education degree, Michelle Kuo decided she wanted to make a difference in the world, … to do … straightforward, immediate work in places that needed people. As a result, she joined an organisation called Teach for America, and was sent to the Mississippi Delta, one of the poorest regions of America, where there was a dire shortage of teachers.
In this moving memoir, Kuo reflects the time she spent in a town called Helena, where she taught English to African-American teenagers, a dumping ground for the so-called bad kids. But, as Kuo puts it in the introduction of the book: Books had changed me … And I believed books could change the lives of my students. It was unashamedly romantic. I was twenty-two.
Her initial idealism was rudely smashed when she started teaching at the incongruously named ‘Stars’ school where the students swore at her (fuck you, Chinese bitch), got into fights, and arrived at school with bruises and welts on their bodies. Kuo was shocked by all of it, but she was more shocked by how she reacted: I yelled. I got mean, and she wondered what she was doing wrong. In a last ditch attempt to engage her students, she chose to teach them a play called A Raisin in the Sun. The reading level was not too difficult and the story centered on on a black family – and there it was, the students responded.
It was after this breakthrough that Kuo’s creative teaching skills shone through and, as a reader and sometime teacher, I found it a joy to read how the students responded to her and how they slowly opened up, writing about their dreams that extended beyond the Delta, and beyond the reputations that clung to them. She introduced the concept of free writing to them, writing that would not be graded or judged in any way, and in fact, would not have to be shown to anyone if they didn’t want. The students questioned her, disbelieving, but then:
… every student wrote. And during this strange time of silence – the heavy dark sounds of breathing, the arrhythmic scratching of the pencil, the surprising absence of talking – there was a palpable sense of desire.
One of Kuo’s students was a fifteen-year-old boy called Patrick Browning; a quiet boy who Kuo, by her second year of teaching, could see was a child who would respond to even a little adult interest: he wanted to try; he was thirsty for encouragement, yet he had failing grades. Discovering that the main reason he was sent to Stars was for failing to attend school, she went to find him at his home in the area of town called a ‘ghetto in a ghetto’. Patrick promised he would come to school more, and responded with passion to her teaching, reading more and writing voraciously and surprising even himself by winning the Most Improved Student award.
However, when Kuo got accepted into Harvard Law School, she left the Delta and immersed herself into university and work life. Three years later, however, she received a phone call to tell her that Patrick was in prison for having killed a man. She felt she had failed him, and a voice inside her said, If you hadn’t left, Patrick might not have ended up in prison. You owe him something, and, despite the fact she was to start a new job in three weeks time, Kuo chose to return to Helena to carry on teaching Patrick poetry, literature and history in prison.
This book isn’t a love story, nor is it a Hollywood-ised account of a teacher changing a person’s life, but it is an incredible reflection of how a person can flourish under another’s attention and how educational guidance can waken a person’s mind. The first bit of writing that Patrick gives Kuo when she meets up with him again is infantile and badly spelled: It was a shock. The writing looked crazed…I did not recognize his handwriting at all. Yet she perseveres, giving him homework and reading study to do after every visit, and loaning him books ranging from ‘The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe’ to haiku poetry to ‘The Narrative of The Life of Frederick Douglass’. She never is condescending; she challenges him; she gives him Larkin, Dylan Thomas, Pablo Neruda, Walt Whitman and gets him to imitate poems in his own words. The beauty of some of what Patrick wrote is striking.
Towards the end of the book, Kuo writes:
He had come so far, but what struck me then and for many years afterwards was how little I had done for him. I don’t mean this in the way of false modesty. I mean that it frightens me that so little was required for him to develop intellectually – a quiet room, a pile of books, and some adult guidance. And yet these things were rarely supplied.
Her comment made me reflect how this is applicable to so many children around the world, particularly in South Africa where the education system is abysmal. There must be so many Patricks who, with regular access to books, some teachers’ attention and regular instruction, would flourish.
This review merely reflects the story of Michelle Kuo and her interactions with Patrick, but there is more depth to the memoir than this, in that Kuo writes, too, about the failure of the educational and justice systems in America, and about the legacy of slavery as well.
To end, a poem of Patrick’s, written in April 2010 while he was in prison (as of now, he is no longer in jail):
I taught myself to feel free and alive/to wake up thankful to be here/and to know everything is a blessing/from my food, my family and visits./When the old man moans in his room/and the white guys tell sad stories,/I insist I’m fine./I have perfect health and happiness./I instantly realise the peaceful insects/flying across the room noiseless/and the bright light bulb/that shine like the sun for me every day/inside the county jail downtown/Only to a newcomer is it all startling./If you ask me I’m not here/Just in my own world.
Anthony Doerr, the author of the best-seller All The Light We Cannot See, received notification that he had won a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome when his new-born twins were only 12 hours old. Six months later, he, his wife and the twins boarded a plane in their home town, Boise, Idaho, and flew to Rome to live for a year.
This book accounts their year in Rome, divided into the four seasons, starting with fall. With each season, Doerr details their new life, the challenges they face living in a foreign city where they can’t speak the language, his failed attempts at writing a novel, the relentless demands of being a new parent; all encapsulated by his beautiful paean to Rome. It is a mix of travelogue, parenting guide, literary criticism, writing guide, with a dose of self-deprecating humour thrown into the mix.
The demands of parenting twins, coupled with insomnia, leaves Doerr so exhausted most of the time that writing becomes a near impossibility, and so he turns to Pliny – “How can fiction compete with this guy?” he says; and he turns his attention to the new city in which he lives. “And now there’s Rome, beginning to seep into everything, flooding my notebooks: the slumbering palaces, the hallucinatory light.” He describes the city in exquisite detail: the residents, the food, the architecture, the history, and often nature within the city; the way the light falls, the colour of the sky, the strength of wind, the rain, the snow. (And how he wishes to see snow fall through the dome of the Pantheon; something he never gets to do.)
He weaves such intricacy into his observations that every sentence about Rome made me feel as though I were walking through it with him – or wish that I were walking with him. He is particularly good at describing the smallest human interactions – whether it be a couple walking past him, a shop keeper, a child holding her father’s hand – and, in doing so, creates an intimate impression of this vast city.
Pope John Paul dies in that same year and Doerr gives us an an account of the millions of pilgrims who flooded the city to attend to the funeral, focusing on the individuals, rather than the pomp and ceremony of the funeral itself. “It’s as if I’ve wandered into the biggest tailgate party in history, three days too long, the enthusiasm faded to a raw-throated, glassy fatigue-some people are crying; many are asleep. Volunteers hand out liters of water. A woman cradles a full grown German Shepherd. A man snores.”
Then there are the accounts of parenting, which are so funny and touching and so full of love for his boys, Owen and Henry, who seem never to sleep. He takes us through their developmental steps: crawling, teething, walking, all against the backdrop of Rome. Wherever they take the twins, people stop to talk to them, admiring the little boys.
“Half a dozen Romans stops me: ‘They are twins?” “How many years do they have?” “where did you buy that stroller?” Half my Italian vocabulary has to do with baby gear.”
Doerr recounts he and his wife having to hire a babysitter and go through the agony of leaving their babies with a stranger; his twins start teething and are monstrous; the whole family gets colds and Owen’s is so bad they have to call out a paediatrician; Doerr’s wife collapses and has to go to hospital, where they find it is nigh impossible to communicate without being able to speak Italian; he tells us their lives in small, humorous and very poignant detail.
Doerr walks through the city every day, sometimes with the twins, sometimes by himself and the whole time he observes Rome and how Romans live.
“Every time I turn around here, I witness a miracle: wisteria pours up walls; slices of sky show through the high arches of a bell tower … a church floor looks as soft as flesh; the skin from a ball of mozzarella cheese tastes rich enough to change my life.”
And so after a year in Rome, it is time for him and his family to go home.
“I know nothing. I lived in Rome four seasons. I never made it through the gates between myself and the Italians. I cannot claim to have become, in even the smallest manner, Roman. And yet I can’t stop myself: a pen, a notebook, the urge to circumscribe experience.”
He has circumscribed his year in Rome wonderfully, with nearly every sentence evoking an image of the eternal city; an account that has made me wish to get back to Rome again.
Oh, this is the most beautiful memoir; a love story, a love letter, by a woman about a man she loved for 16 years. I devoured this book, awed by the joyous love that Elizabeth Alexander held for her husband who dropped dead unexpectedly of a heart attack. While reading it, I wondered at her skill of writing about deeply personal grief in such an accessible, tender manner, and the honesty with which she portrayed the difficulties of trying to find meaning in her new world without him. It was also heart-warming to read a book about a real love, in a time when the world is full of divorce and bitterness.
Elizabeth Alexander is an award-winning poet (probably best known for writing and reading the poem, Praise Song for the Day, at Obama’s inauguration), who presently is a professor of poetry at Yale University. She had never written a book of prose before this one and certainly never planned to write a memoir – ‘my own sense of privacy was too powerful’ – but when she sat down and started to write, she found she couldn’t stop.
Alexander tells the story of her and her husband’s 16-year relationship from beginning to end, jumping backwards and forwards, uncovering the layers of affection from its rapturous beginning to its tragic end. She met Ficre Ghebreyesus (FEE-kray Geb-reh-YESS-oos) in New Haven in 1996 – ‘Our love began in an instant and progressed inevitably’ – and soon they married and had two sons.
Ficre was born in East Africa in Asmara, Eritrea’s capital, in the middle of the 30-year-long war with Ethiopia for independence. His parents had to face down soldiers who barged into their house, threatening them with death. Ficre’s eldest brother died while fighting as a ‘freedom fighter’, but when Ficre enlisted, his mother went to retrieve him from the front line, and arranged for him leave the country as a refugee. At 16, he left home and went Sudan, then Italy, then Germany and finally made America his home. Ficre was an artist and a chef and, as well as working on his art, he opened a well-known Eritrean restaurant in New Haven. His paintings are bright and colourful, deeply influenced by the Eritrean culture, and born out of the psychological trauma he experienced there (the book’s cover portrays one of his artworks).
Alexander describes Ficre with such loving description throughout the book; for example:
His voice lilted across a pentatonic scale. “How are you?” D-sharp, C, G-sharp. There was chocolate in his voice, a depth, a bottom…In this still life I have forgotten to say, he was beautiful, and utterly without vanity.
He shaved his head on account of his receding hairline, but surely no one ever looked more beautiful bald – brown like a chestnut, clear brown, like topaz or buckwheat honey.
In her writing, he comes across as a joyful, funny, kind man, with family all around America and back in Eritrea, into whose clan Alexander was gladly received. She embraced his Eritrean traditions and cooking with fervour, and much of the book covers the merging of their cultures, an experiment that happily worked. The glimpse into the Eritrean life, with its Italian and Ethiopian influences, gave another level of interest to the book.
Ficre died aged 50 while running on the treadmill in the basement of their house, soon after Alexander had come home from a reading. She tried CPR on him, but he died before getting to the hospital. She said:
“Ficre breathed his last breath into me when I opened his mouth and breathed everything I had into him. He felt like a living person then. I am certain his soul was there.”
The memoir covers the depth of her grief at her sudden loss, her disbelief that Ficre could no longer be in her life. After his death, she dreamed of him constantly and often felt his presence; she and the children talked about him constantly, remembering small details. The first poem she wrote many months after his death is titled Family in 3/4 Time, which starts like this:
We are now a three-legged table/a family of three, once a family of four./We bring ourselves into new balance./The table wobbles, but does not fall.
The Light of the World is a memoir that portrays the depth of Alexander’s loss and grieving, and the ways in which she had to learn to be in the world without her husband, but most of all it is a beautiful tribute to a man deeply loved by those who knew him.
This has not been an intentional reading theme; it just so happened that I read two books in a row that were about prisoners. The first was a novel, The Book of Memory, by Petina Gappah, and the other was a memoir, A House in the Sky, by Amanda Lindhout, co-written with journalist Sara Corbett.
Petina Gappah won The Guardian First Book Award in 2009 for her collection of short stories, An Elegy for Easterly. The Book of Memory is her first novel and it is a powerful story of a Zimbabwean woman sitting on death row for the murder of her adopted father, a rich white man. It had been waiting on my Kindle for a long time; I’m not sure why I didn’t get round to reading it sooner because the opening sentence alone is enough to captivate one:
The story that you have asked me to tell you does not begin with the pitiful ugliness of Lloyd’s death. It begins on a long-ago day in August when the sun seared my blistered face and I was nine years old and my father and mother sold me to a strange man.
Memory is an albino woman who grew up in a poor township, spending her childhood being teased and bullied by other children, playing with her siblings, and avoiding the sun. This book is her way of remembering and interpreting her past, and of trying to gain an understanding of why her life followed the trajectory it did, leading up to her sitting in prison as the only woman on death row. Memory’s narration skips from past, to present, to way, way back, to the immediate, and carries on circuitously, as memory itself does.
It sounds like grim stuff, which of course it is, but Gappah has created the most wonderful character in Memory, whose voice is suffused with humour and a marked lack of self-pity. I enjoyed every minute of the book – the plot itself, but also Gappah’s writing – her descriptions are so vivid that I could imagine the prison, almost taste the mangoes and smell the dusty Zimbabwean roads. Never is Memory’s albinism used as a pity-point, though when it’s brought into the text, it brings home the awfulness of the condition, with the descriptions of her skin blistering and bubbling, and the merciless teasing from others. In the same way, the murder of which she is accused is not the central pivot of the book and we only find out about it right towards the end because this is not a book about an albino, nor one about a murderer; it is, as the title says, a book of memory.
A House in the Sky is also about a prisoner, though this time it is the true story about a young Canadian woman who was kidnapped and held hostage in Somalia with her ex-lover for 460 days. Amanda Lindhout also grew up poor, squashed into rooms with her siblings, listening to her mother being beaten up by a younger boyfriend. As a means of escape, Amanda would buy old copies of National Geographic – with money from scrounging for recyclables – and lose herself in the photos of strange and exotic countries.
Once old enough, she waitressed in high-end clubs to save money to travel and as soon as she could escape, she ventured into countries she’d always dreamed of visiting in South America, Africa and Asia. The book starts off a bit like a travelogue, with accounts of Amanda’s travels to various destinations, none of which are ‘easy’ countries to visit. After travelling on and off for a couple of years, while waitressing in between to save money, she visits Afghanistan and Iraq and starts a semi-career as a war journalist, albeit a very naive one.
In the beginning, in an attempt to ingratiate herself to the captors, Amanda persuades Nigel to convert to Islam and, for a while, this tactic works as she is treated with respect and taught the Koran. Her kidnappers are young, and unfamiliar with women, especially Western women, and she describes them in such a poignant way I almost started to feel sympathy for them. After an escape attempt (for which Nigel believes she must take the blame), however, her captors begin to torture her through isolation, rape and beatings. In a vividly described section, she is even taken to the desert one night and is led to believe she is about to die, as a man holds a serrated knife to her neck.
Amanda survives by creating ‘a house in the sky’ and escaping to happier places in her mind when her body is being treated worse than an animal’s. With an incredible inner strength, she manages to reach a place of understanding and empathy for her captors. Although she and Nigel are kept separate, they remain in touch by leaving notes in the bathroom and even creating Christmas presents for each other out of scraps of rubbish.
They both are freed after their families manage to raise a fraction of the amount of money initially demanded and Amanda begins to piece her life together again in Canada. She has started a philanthropic NGO to enable women in Somalia to get to university and, when asked why she would want to help people in the very country where she was taken hostage and abused, she replied:
“You can very easily go into anger and bitterness and revenge thoughts and resentment and ‘Why me?'[…] Because I had something very, very large and very painful to forgive, and by choosing to do that, I was able to put into place my vision, which was making Somalia a better place[…] I’ve never questioned whether or not it was the right thing to do[…] What else to do after the experience that I had, than something like this?”
This memoir reads as smoothly and beautifully as any good quality novel, and I felt privileged to have read it, to have been given an insight into such an intimate, frank account – yet devoid of self-pity – of a woman’s experience to hell and back. Amanda Lindhout is an incredible woman to have been able to go through this experience and to survive it with forgiveness and goodwill in her heart.
Subtitled A story of trees, science and love, Lab Girl was an expected and utterly joyful read. This book ranks as one of my favourites this year, if not for a couple of years. Whether you are remotely interested in science and trees or not, still read this book. I am not a scientist in any remote fashion (I got told to give it up in grade 7) and I know very little about trees, other than I like them, but I found Lab Girl fascinating, addictive – and it has a beautiful cover.
Hope Jahren is a highly successful scientist who equally could have been a highly successful poet or writer, such is the beauty of her sentences and her talent for writing about scientific material. Her bookintersperses her personal story, both private and professional, with short chapters about trees, making it at once an intimate memoir as well as a scientific account of the lives of trees. She just fascinated me – she is honest and funny about her bipolar disorder, her addiction to work, her relationships, her struggle to gain recognition as a female scientist. I would like to meet her.
She started out studying English literature at university but soon found out that ‘science was where I actually belonged’, saying: ‘In science classes we did things instead of just sitting around talking about things … Science lectures dealt with social problems that still could be solved …’
Jahren grew up in Minnesota in a Scandinavian family, and spent much of her childhood in her father’s laboratory with him. Her relationship with her family, in particular her mother, had a powerful influence on other relationships in her life.
“The vast emotional distances between the individual members of a Scandinavian family are forged early and reinforced daily…When I was a child I assumed the whole world acted like we did and so it confused me when I moved out of state and met people who gave each other the simple warmth and casual affection I had craved for so long.”
Her love of science grew from spending hours in the lab with her father, ‘…playing beneath the chemical benches until I was tall enough to play on them.’ Back at home, she says, ‘…while my mother and I gardened and read together, I vaguely sensed there was something we weren’t doing, something that normal mothers and daughters naturally do…We probably do love each other, but I’m not entirely sure…Being mother and daughter has always felt like an experiment that we just can’t get right.’
The reason I mention this relationship with her mother is that when, towards the end of the book, Jahren falls pregnant, she write with great honesty about her self-doubt of becoming a mother. After her son’s birth, she says:
‘I decide that I will not be this child’s mother. Instead I will be his father. It is something I know how to do and something that will come naturally to me. I won’t think about how weird my thinking is; I will just love him and he will love me and it will just work. Perhaps this has been a million-plus-year-old experiment that even I couldn’t screw up.’
Throughout her personal story, Jahren weaves the development of her career as a scientist who studies plants, becoming a geobiologist. To say she loves plants is an understatement; she writes about them in such an affectionate way, as though they are friends and draws analogies to humans. She made me feel passionate about plants and understand a great deal more about trees than I knew before. She talks about cacti surviving in the desert, and trees managing sub-zero temperatures, big trees and small trees, the structure of leaves, the properties of wood; she makes trees interesting. For example, in a chapter about seeds, she closes with: ‘Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.’
She writes a great deal about her colleague, Bill – an odd, reclusive, anti-social man who works with Jahren intimately and is at once a brother, a friend, a soul mate in a way. Bill comes with her whenever she moves and sets up a new lab, variously living in the labs, in his car, rundown flats and finally a house. They both end up in Hawaii.She says: ‘People still puzzle over the two of us, Bill and me…We eat almost every meal together, our finances are mixed, and we tell each other everything…but people I meet still want a label for what is between us…I don’t have an answer for that one. I do us because us is what I know how to do.’
Jahren unexpectedly falls in love with and marries another scientist, then has a child, both of which astound her as she feels she does not deserve such happiness. He must be the most understanding husband, as she carries on working with a single-minded fashion at all hours, always with Bill, always passionate about every aspect of her work, but equally in love with her husband and child.
Her epilogue in the book is a plea to humans to try and stem the destruction of earth as is happening at the moment. ‘Human civilization has reduced the plant, a four-hundred-million-year-old life form, into three things: food, medicine and wood…we have devastated plant ecology to an extent that millions of years of natural disaster could not.’ She asks us all to plant a tree to to counter the destruction, and to look after that tree: ‘You are your tree’s only friend in a hostile world.’
I am grateful that there are people like this in the world, ones who care enough to be working tirelessly towards trying to save the earth, but I am also immensely grateful that Hope Jahren wrote this book – a delight on all levels.
If I asked you who Dylan Klebold is, I reckon most of you won’t know. I didn’t. But if I asked you if you remembered the Columbine High School massacre, most of you will. Dylan Klebold was one of the Columbine shooters who, with his friend Eric Harris, walked into the high school on the morning of 20 April 1999 with a backpack filled with guns and explosives. In the course of about an hour, the two of them killed 12 students and a teacher, wounded 24, and then took their own lives.
Dylan’s mother, Sue Klebold, has written this memoir (subtitled Living in the aftermath of the Columbine tragedy) as a way of trying to understand what happened to her son that he landed up committing murder-suicide in the most horrific manner . She attempts to get us to understand, but also, it seemed to me that she needed to write it to try to get herself to understand. And, as an extension of that, to forgive herself. The introduction is written by Andrew Solomon, an author who has experienced suicidal depressions and written extensively on the topic.
On the day of the shootings, Sue was getting up when she heard Dylan run down their stairs and open the front door. Surprised at how early he was up, she shouted his name, but he just replied, ‘Bye’ and shut the door behind him. She was unsettled by this:
There had been an edge to Dylan’s voice in that single word I’d never heard before – a sneer, almost, as if he’d been caught in the middle of a fight with someone.
But later in the morning when she heard about the shooting going on at her son’s high school, her first thought was, “Is Dylan safe?” When, however, she realised that her son was in some way involved in the shooting, she prayed that he would die before he hurt anyone else further.
Sue Klebold had no idea her son was as depressed as he was, so far gone down a black hole that he wanted to commit suicide and, along the way, harm others.This is what the author was faced with – the truth that she had raised a child who could be responsible for such horror and that she had not known something was wrong. This anguish runs as a thread throughout the book: the shame, the questioning, the probing, the trying to understand; and along with this, the deep deep love she has for her child and the grief of losing him to suicide.
Much of the book, therefore, is looking back on Dylan’s life and at how she and her husband brought up their children (there is an older son). The thing is that their lives were pretty normal – loving, attentive parents with kids who achieved at school, ‘nice’ kids. Kids like you and I have. There are photos of a sweet toddler, one of family groups, another of an awkward tween. A photo of him with his prom date, just days before the shootings. She was a typical suburban mother who had two boys who grew into teenagers and, like many teenagers, they both got into a bit of trouble. She thought Dylan’s issues were caused by typical hormonal teenage angst.
This is an incredibly honest book. Sue Klebold never makes up excuses for herself or for her son; she acknowledges that she missed signs that Dylan was unhappy or depressed. He was sometimes sullen and withdrawn, he got suspended from school for breaking into students’ lockers, he wrote an essay that disturbed the teacher enough to talk to the Klebolds about it. Sue and her husband put it down to his being a teenager – Dylan had friends, he was socialising, he was chatting over the dinner table; he seemed ‘normal’.
Yet when the Klebolds were shown the evidence that police had collected, she was shocked and profoundly shaken to learn the reality of her son’s inner world. His journals were full of rambling, sometimes incoherent, sentences that reflected a deep depression and a wish to die. He had stashed guns in his room. He and Eric had made videos before the massacre – known as The Basement Tapes – and in them she saw a son she had never ever known.
He and Eric were preposterous, posturing, given a performance for each other and their invisible audience. I had never seen that expression of sneering superiority on Dylan’s face. My mouth gaped open when I heard the language they were using – abominable, hate-filled, racist, derogatory words, words never heard or spoken in our home.
After all his ugly ranting, by the end of the tape, surrounded by their weaponry, Dylan’s last words were: ‘Just know I’m going to a better place. I didn’t like life too much…‘
The one interpretation that she clings onto throughout the book and examines closely in relation to Dylan is that he was depressed and suicidal, not psychotic or evil. As one the FBI’s psychologists put it: ‘I believe Eric went to school to kill people and didn’t care if he died, while Dylan wanted to die and didn’t care if others died as well.‘ Another expert told her that it was not her fault that she had not picked up on Dylan’s depression because he had hidden it to incredibly well.
This was an emotional read, and sometimes a difficult one, yet I could not help but sympathise with Sue Klebold. Any mother could relate to some of what she says, and to the depth of her grief. She never excused what Dylan did, but tried to understand it and down the line became very involved in helping parents with children who had committed suicide or tried to commit suicide. I would recommend this book for parents of teenage children – not to scare them, but to make them aware of what might being going on in their children’s lives, and to seek help as soon as possible.