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So many scenes from this book are still stuck in my head after finishing it two weeks ago.  I had to keep reminding myself while reading it that it was a true story and not fiction. 

Not only is the family’s personal story of survival unbelievable, but also the larger story of how the Mujahedin toppled the Russian backed government in the early 90’s, only to be driven out by the Taliban (before reading this I didn’t even know the difference between the two groups.) 

At one point I realized that the author was exactly my age when he described what the situation like when he should’ve started high school in 1996, and I cried, thinking of how innocent and oblivious my childhood was compared to the things he had seen.  Cried in total disbelief that terrorists could treat people like this under the guise of “religion”. 

The book is completely heart wrenching and fascinating.  Two things that really surprised me were how nice the city of Kabul sounds before the war, and that the ordinary citizens (including this well off educated family) had little idea of who the Taliban was before they arrived, nor did they know who Osama bin Laden was until 9/11. 

I loved reading about how the families lived in large compounds with a courtyard in the middle filled with gardens where they all ate together with their aunts and uncles and cousins.  The author talks a lot about how important his extended family was in his life – cousins were like brothers and sisters.  It especially struck a chord because I read the book while on vacation with Nathan’s family, with cousins Jane rarely gets to see, and I was saddened by how distant we are with our families in the U.S. in comparison to many other countries. 

My bottom line review for anyone is read it, read it, read it.  The writing is excellent, story is fast paced, and the whole thing will give you a lot to think about. 

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The Year in Books, So Far.

First, two books I forgot on my 2012 list:

The Woman Who Fell from the Sky:  An American Journalist in Yemen.  Absolutely loved this memoir.  The woman was bored with her journalism career in NYC and took a job for a few months in Yemen.  Then she returned to NYC and…. decided to return to Yemen for another year.  This memoir falls into the category of “books that make me really really glad I was born in America”.  Her stories are fascinating though, especially when she falls in love with the married British ambassador.

Forbidden Lessons in a Kabul Guesthouse:  The True Story of a Woman Who Risked Everything to Bring Hope to Afghanistan.  This memoir falls into the same category as above.  What a terrifying country.  This was written by a woman who grew up in Afghanistan but fled when she was a young woman and the political situation started to get bad (late 1970’s?).  She came to America and built a successful life with her husband, but when he dies suddenly she feels the need to do something more fulfilling and starts a charity organization for Afghanistan.  Along the way she ends up spending a lot of time in the country during a very dangerous period and the result (besides a thriving charity!)  is a really good book.  (That will make you thankful you live in America.)

Books so far in 2013:

The Grace of Silence:  This is a memoir by Michele Norris of NPR about growing up in Minneapolis during the 1970’s and learning about her family’s history and the secrets they had kept regarding racism towards them earlier in their lives.  Her Dad grew up in Birmingham and it was shocking for me to read how African-Americans were treated there during and after WWII.  It’s one thing to know the basic facts of segregation in the south, but this was truly sobering to read the account of one family’s story.  And then when they bought a house in Minneapolis they were “block busters” and since I live here it hit so close to home that this could’ve been a family that lived right next store to my Mom’s and it is just crazy to think people were treated that way in what seems like the very recent past.  Anyway, highly recommended book.

Burying the Typewriter:  A memoir about growing up in communist Romania with an activist father.  As much as I love memoirs, I especially love “behind the iron curtain” memoirs.  The woman who wrote it is not much older than I am and her family was terrorized by the secret police for years because of her father’s activities before they managed to come to the U.S. when she was a teenager.  I really liked this book not just for the drama, but because of the descriptions of life in a small village in Romania, how everyone was connected and families were very close and life was simple and happy (when not being stalked by the secret police).

I also started and stopped three other memoirs that I will spare you the details/am too lazy to type out, and am in the middle of three more.  My problem is I put them on the request list at the library and then they all come in at the same time and I can’t help starting them all.  Plan for the rest of 2013:  Read something other than memoirs?

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I say “memorable” because I have a really hard time remembering what books I’ve read, even the good ones.  Usually I return to the library and mostly forget about them.  In 2013, I’m totally keeping a list like Click Clack Gorilla.  Go check out her book list and share a link to your own!

Here’s a few I read in 2012, no particular order:

1.  The Man Who Quit Money.  Nonfiction about this guy who has been living without money for 12 years.  Absolutely fascinating, great book!

2.  Escape from Camp 14:  One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West.  Also fascinating – in a horrific way…. makes you realize again how scary N. Korea is and how lucky we are to have the lives we do.

3.  The Dispossessed.  A sort of utopian sci fi book written in 1974.  This is definitely not one of the ones I “mostly forgot” about.  I read it months ago and scenes from the book still pop into my head regularly.  It’s on my “must buy this book” list.

4.  Blue Clay People.  Memoir by a guy who worked for an aid organization in Liberia.  Loved it.  Full review here.

5.  Wild, by Cheryl Strayed.  Memoir by a girl who hiked the Pacific Crest Trail alone after her mother died.  Full of really interesting stories, she was a total mess for most of the book and did all kinds of stupid stuff, but is a very lovable and understandable character.

6.  Making Piece:  A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Pie.  This started out interesting but I’m not even sure if I finished it.  By the time I was 3/4 of the way through it seemed like the story just kept repeating itself:  She is super depressed, she doesn’t know what to do, she has some connection with someone powerful and somehow everything ends up working out spectacularly.

7.  Eat to Live.  About why and how to eat a plant based diet.  Full review here.

8.  Kosher Chinese:  Living, Teaching, and Eating with China’s Other Billion.  Really funny memoir, full review here.

9.  Twelve by Twelve:  A one-room cabin off the grid & beyond the American dream.  Memoir about living in aforementioned cabin.  Excellent book, by the same author of Blue Clay People and the next one on this list.  Full review here.

10.  Whispering in the Giant’s Ear:  A Frontline Chronicle from Bolivia’s War on Globalization.  Good, but I think I liked his other 2 books better.

That’s all I can remember for now, thanks Nikki for the inspiration, to read more, and remember more!

2021

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Book Review: Blue Clay People

Blue Clay People: Seasons on Africa’s Fragile Edge – another one by William Powers.  I liked this for all the same reasons I liked the last book of his I read, Twelve by Twelve. 

But this one is even better because it provides such a captivating picture of what Liberia was like when he worked there in 1999.  The book is a perfect mix of stories about every day life there, analysis of the de-foresting and diamond mining issues (without being boring), and drama in his personal life.

One chapter that was a little heartbreaking was when he returns home to the U.S. for a mandatory leave a year into his job.  He was in long distance relationship with his serious girlfriend and has dinner with her and her friends who are talking about their big diamond engagement rings, five figure corporate dinner tabs, and fancy new furniture.  He doesn’t know how to react.

They had been talking about engagement, but break up by the time he returns to Liberia.

Although I’ve never been to a third world country or had a relationship end because of ideological issues, I could empathize.

Once you’ve realized the disgusting truth about something, whether it’s what kind of destruction may have occurred to produce your beautiful furniture or how much an animal has suffered to produce that meal you’re eating…  it’s hard to go back to taking enjoyment in those things.

There are lots of funny moments in the book too though, I’d recommend it to anyone. So go check out Blue Clay People.

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Twelve By Twelve: A one-room cabin off the grid & beyond the American dream by William Powers.

I’m not much into writing book reviews, but really liked this one so at least wanted to let other people know about it.  The back of the book can summarize better than I can:

“Why would a successful American physician choose to live in a twelve-by-twelve-foot cabin without running water or electricity?  To find out, writer and activist William Powers visited Dr. Jackie Benton in rural North Carolina, where she shared her wildcrafter philosophy of living on a planet in crisis.  Powers, just back from a decade of international aid work, then accepted Benton’s offer to stay at the cabin for a seaon while she traveled.”

So the book is mostly a memoir of this guy’s time living in the 12 x 12 and getting to know the neighbors also living “alternative lifestyles”.  He writes a lot of his thoughts about how the world works in relation to simple living, and also includes stories from his time abroad.

One passage I could especially relate to:

“In international aid work, the philosophical chasm between living well and living better can lead to culture clash – as well as to serious marital problems.  I know a French aid worker who married a woman from Burkina Faso.  Their most difficult problem isn’t money or in-laws but idleness.  His wife, he confided to me one day, “has to have five or six hours a day of doing absolutely nothing in order to be happy.”  My friend is inclined to fill every available moment with work, hobbies, and travel, but his wife prefers to simply sit on the stoop watching the breeze in the trees, idly chatting and joking.  If she doesn’t get this idle time, she becomes grouchy.”

I read that and thought “that’s me!”  I’m happiest when I can spend hours sitting on my porch in the sun reading, or taking long aimless walks – I just wish I could find other people to do them with me.  My ideal life would be to have other stay at home moms on my block who weren’t rushing around to scheduled activities, who weren’t so busy, who just wanted to spend the afternoons casually hanging out.

Anyway, this book is great.  It made me think a lot about how I want to live my life, it’s easy to read and the writing is perfect balance between philosophy, interesting stories, and drama between the neighbors and in Powers’ own life.

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