The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander

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.

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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.

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Ficre Ghebreyesus

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).

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One of Ficre’s paintings

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.

And:

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.

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Elizabeth, Ficre and their sons

http://www.ficre-ghebreyesus.com/about/

 

Two books about prisoners: A Book of Memory and A House in the Sky

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.

book-of-memory

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.

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Petina Gappah

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.


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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.

 

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Amanda Lindhout

 

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.

Somalia

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.

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

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.

lab girl

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.

Hope

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.’

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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.’

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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.

A Mother’s Reckoning by Sue Klebold

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.

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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.

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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.

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From one of the videos

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.

 

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.

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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.

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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 …’

 

The Verwoerd who Toyi-Toyied by Melanie Verwoerd

I knew nothing about Melanie Verwoerd before I had read this book other than that she was married to Wilhelm Verwoerd and that he had voted for the ANC in the first free elections in South Africa. It turns out she’s far more interesting than I ever knew and is a woman who was strong enough to stand up against one of the most powerful Afrikaans families in history and work hard to defend her beliefs. 

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This autobiography of hers covers two important areas of her life – her marriage to Wilhelm, her divorce, and after that her relationship with Gerry Ryan, an Irish celebrity broadcaster. When she and Wilhelm were students in Stellenbosch in the early 1990s, they joined the recently unbanned ANC – of course they were ostracised by the community and disowned by family and friends, yet they were undeterred by this. Melanie became a parliamentarian working under Mandela, with whom she developed a close relationship. On her and Wilhelm’s first meeting Mandela, Wilhelm tried to apologise for what his family had done to Mandela.

“No,” Mandela said, ‘you only need to remember that with the surname you both carry, you have a voice. People will listen to you.”

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Melanie remembered those words and used them in Parliament. Her accounts of the first non-racial government are fascinating and often surprisingly funny.  She went on to become the South African ambassador to Ireland, where she met Gerry Ryan and started a relationship with him. I didn’t find the part about Ireland so interesting, I’m sure because I don’t know Ireland like I know South Africa, but I found Gerry Ryan to be a bit of an irritating naff and wasn’t quite sure why she fell so inutterably in love with him. Image

 

This book is not about politics, it is Melanie’s story about her life and her beliefs and I ended up admiring her for being a strong woman who stands up for herself.