Book Review: The Places In Between, by Rory Steward

The Places in Between 

In 2004, Rory Stewart, author of The Places in Between, trekked  400 Km (250 miles) across Afghanistan between the cities of Chaghcharan and Kabul. HIs mission was to follow in the footsteps of Babur, the first emperor of Mughal, who did the same walk in 1507. Babur also chronicled his travels which Stewart shares, along with other tales about Afghanistan’s ancient history.  

Afghanistan’s interior lacks hotels or inns, so the custom is to take travelers who need shelter into your home—often reluctantly. On occasion, hosts comfortably feed and house Stewart, but mostly he bunks in poor villages, many of which have changed little over centuries. Illiteracy is rampant, the mud houses usually have no electricity, running water, sanitation, or more to offer than bread, water, and a bare floor. Transportation across the silent spare rocky landscape is commonly by foot or donkey; one man didn’t know what an airplane was. At times, Stewart trudges through snow up to his chest; once, it was -40 ℉; dysentery was his constant companion. He side-stepped danger from landmines, marauders and Taliban. Many photos and sketches he drew of people, places and animals, including the dog he adopted, are in the book.

Besides sheer gumption, a secret to Stewart’s success is his respect and knowledge of Afghan’s languages, culture, and tribal history. Through he can be assertive when necessary, he comes across as calm, non-judgmental and savvy. While reading this extraordinary book, I wondered if any US military officials had read it and what they’d think. This story could break their hearts and spirits or spur them to keep trying to change this intractable country. Along this line, we should all remember one of Stewart’s takeaways from his journey: “Most of the policy makers knew next to nothing about the villages where 90 percent of the Afghan population lived…”

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A Tiny Christmas-New Year Miracle

A Tiny Christmas-New Year Miracle 

I have a friend who’s forty-six years-old; I’ll call her Mommy. She and Daddy, her husband, have tried for years to adopt a baby. Earlier this year, they were expecting a baby to be placed with them—and yes, I chose that word “expecting” on purpose. A pending adoptive family hopes and waits, then when told that a baby has been found for them, they go into “expectant mode,” similar to a pregnant couple, but more cautiously, because adoptions sometimes fall through—like this one did.

But a new baby was found for them and all was going well, until the foster mother of baby number two told the birth mother that the waiting family was in Missouri (the birth mom was from another state), then added, “If you let a family in Missouri adopt your baby, you’ll never see him again.” So, another near miss for Mommy and Daddy.   

Fast forward to the present—and you may not be surprised by the end of this story. Baby number three, a premie, was born in December and Mommy and Daddy have the tiny Christmas-New Year Miracle they’ve waited years for. He’s really theirs, and although he’s not yet large enough to go home, he’s growing and thriving and appears to be developing normally. 

Miracles do come true. Happy New Year and may you too find light in your life in 2019. 

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****Book Review: My Absolute Darling, by Gabriel Tallent

Usually, I either can’t, or won’t, complete books like Gabriel Tallent’s, debut novel, My Absolute Darling. It’s a gripping, exhausting, page-turner about a fourteen year-old nicknamed Turtle who lives in an isolated, but stunningly beautiful location along the Northern California seacoast. Turtle lives with her father Martin, a psychological, sexual, and sadistic abuser.

Tallent’s luminous writing and detailed knowledge of the natural world prevents this story from completely falling down a rabbit hole of horror and violence; Turtle’s nature walks sustain her and also the reader. She’s a survivalist who differentiates between pungent smells of the field or forest and finds where the wild mustard and radishes grows. Turtle unlocks beauty in life by parting “curtains of blooming orange nasturtiums,” to see “a black expanse of cobbles, and each cobble holds an eye of moonlight, and each looks soft and wet like flesh, stretched out before her in a multitude.”

This fourteen year-old child keeps body and soul together by her own physical toughness. She’s a markswoman, can withstand ice and cold, and adjusts to her tumbledown home. Still, she hates her life and herself, and, because her father says she is, she believes she’s a worthless slut. From the outside looking in, It’s difficult to comprehend Martin’s and Turtle’s tainted relationship. In Martin’s twisted mind, when he’s not being cruel and violent, he professes to love and need his daughter more than life itself. The girl believes and understands this need in him, and puts his desires before her own, even though she doesn’t want to.

Then, as often happens with teenage girls, Turtle meets a boy, gets a taste of the outside world and, in a heart stopping conclusion, channels all of her strength into escaping her father’s control.

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***Book Review: Animals Strike Curious Poses, by Elena Passarello

Animals Strike Curious Poses, Elena Passarello’s collection of essays about animals, is…well, different. She mixes fact and fiction to create what might be dubbed entertainment science. The anthology begins with “Yuca,” who was a 39,000 year-old mammoth. Throughout the book, readers are continually reminded of the magical nature of animals and the pleasure and wonder they give us. For example, wooly mammoths inspired some of the earliest artwork known to man—cave drawings. The author also examines the dark side to man’s relationship to animals; the cruelty inflicted on them, the advantages taken, and the presumptions that animals are there for us, often without any regard for their health, safety, or survival.  

In all, the anthology contains seventeen short essays; the final one is about Cecil the lion who, in 2015, was killed by a hunter in Zimbabwe. We also learn about a wolf, a bear, a pigeon(s), a spider that goes on a space mission, Jumbo the elephant, Koko the gorilla, etc. Koko was a gorilla who learned sign language. In the brief, two page “Koko” essay, Passarello creates a fanciful conversation between a person and Koko, who only uses the words and phrases she can sign. 

This anthology is difficult to read and not one I’d be inclined to read, except it was a book club assignment. To me, the most challenging piece was “Joeffry.” It’s a partial retelling of Christopher Smart’s 1760 poem, “Jubilate Agno” that praises the cat, Joeffry. In Smart’s poem, he manipulates language and uses snippets of fact and fiction about literary and historical happenings and characters. It’s unclear to me how much Passarello has reworked Smart’s stanzas, or if she’s playing it straight and has just reprinted parts of this extravagant, lush-language poem.  

Perhaps the most well-known story is “Vogel Staar,” about Mozart’s pet starling. It explores the idea of Mozart and his songbird having musically collaborated on some of the young composers works; and it is worth the read. Coincidentally, a few months after reading the essay, I heard Elena Passarello interviewed on NPR. The interviewer focused on her “Vogel Staar” essay and the producers accommodatingly played both Mozart and starling tweets and twitters. Maybe it was my lack of a musical ear, but I wasn’t totally convinced that Mozart was influenced by his bird, however the concept was unique and imaginative; as is much of Passarello’s book.

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***** Book Review: The Eighty Dollar Champion, by Elizabeth Letts

The Eighty-Dollar Champion: Snowman, the Horse That Inspired a Nation

As a little girl growing up in Harlem in the 1950s, peddlers in horse-drawn wagons were always a happy sighting. Elizabeth Letts’ book, “The Eighty-Dollar Champion: Snowman, The Horse that Inspired a Nation,” took me back to those days, when horses were still part of both rural, and urban life.

The setting for Letts’ feel-good horse story is Long Island, NY, right after WWII. The main character, Harry de Leyer, a Dutch immigrant and Snowman’s owner, reminded me of another hardworking European immigrant. His name was Abe, and from his wagon, he sold vegetables on our street, and treated his gentle horse like a prince. In the late 1950s, it wasn’t uncommon for men like Abe and Harry de Leyer to make a living, and a new life, in their new country, with the help of a horse.

Harry, along with his talented and plucky horse, loved competing annually in the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden. During the 1950s, I too loved my yearly visits to the Garden to see the Barnum and Bailey Circus. Letts’ description of the Garden was right-on, especially when she says: “For all the glory upstairs in the Garden, the basement was a sorry excuse for a stabling area. The ventilation was famously poor, and made worse by people who ignored the no smoking rule. This,” Letts further adds, “was also where they housed… nervous, high strung horses who paw the dirt in their narrow, constricted stables.”

The actual circus, like the Horse Show, performed upstairs in the arena, but a circus fan’s first stop was always in the cramped basement to see the sideshow. And, just as the Horse Show’s expensive thoroughbreds and jumpers lived in the basement, the circus animals also boarded down there. Each year I’d see the elephants changed by their ankles, lethargic bears, and riled up lions and tigers nervously pacing in small cages.

America was not always a happy place during the Cold War era, but once readers get past Letts’ troubling description of animal quarters at Madison Square Garden, “The Eighty Dollar Horse” takes you to a happier place.

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***Book Review: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by JD Vance

Hillbilly Elegy

J.D. Vance, is the author of the bestseller, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. Before the reader even opens the cover, the book’’s alliterative title grabs you. The timing of its release was prescient, as it coincided with Donald Trump’s campaign theme to “Make America Great Again.” To a large extent, the people Vance writes about—hillbillies and small town folks who think mainstream America has forgotten about them—are the choir to whom Trump preaches. 

With President Trump’s march to the White House, we’ve learned just how restive and divided we are as a nation. Much of the discontent centers on a population Vance knows well—his friends and family members. They and others born in Appalachia moved from the Kentucky hills to towns and cities in Ohio.

In the process, these folks brought their culture and customs with them, including a tradition of hard work, rough manners, and coarse, tell-it-as-it-is language, but also generational poverty, lack of education, and drug addition.

Throughout the book, Vance articulates his love for family and his fellow hillbillies. He’s as candid about their faults as he is about his difficult childhood. He constantly moved from place to place, while living off and on with a drug addicted mother, and different father figures, until his grandparents took him in.

One of the helpful ways Vance ushers outsiders into this culture is through the use of language. For instance, he tells us that if you catch a minna, you’ve snagged a minnow. A hollow, for those who don’t know, is a deep valley, although Vance says he never used the word hollow, except when explaining the difference between hollow and holler.

One of Vance’s first jobs as a teenager was a cashier in a grocery store that served both poor and more well-off customers. One day he asked his grandmother why only poor people bought baby formula. She told him that poor people don’t breast feed.

That’s an interesting tidbit, but, I’d have preferred to hear from a mother or two, why breastfeeding is a no-no. In another soundbite, the author says his people are depressed, obese and in poor health because breakfast is often “Pillsbury cinnamon rolls … Taco Bell for lunch, and McDonald’s for dinner.” Why is that? Is their gas turned off? Too lazy to cook?

Much of the book reads like the dry narrative of a PhD thesis. Without even getting into the nutritional aspects, does a family who often eats out understand the costs of fast food?

It takes too long for the author to tell us that many of the folks who came to Ohio for a better life found work in factories or mines and were thus able to join the middle class. There is also a long buildup to explain the present discontent and cultural divide. When he finally gets to the point, he tells us what we’ve been seeing and hearing for decades.
Globalization and automation have been especially hard on the industries of “hillbilly people,” and they’re angry. They’ve lost their jobs; they’re financially strapped, depressed, increasingly obese, drug addicted, uneducated. Many of them place the blame on Democrats (though not Vance’s grandmother), immigrants and especially President Obama.


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*****Book Review, Woman in Berlin, by Anonymous

A Woman in Berlin, by Anonymous, is a book about mass rape during Word War II, including the author’s own violations. The forward and introduction state that the thirty-four year-old author was a professional journalist, who remained objective, even instilling bits of humor into her story. womn-in-berlin

In 2001, after her death, the public learned that Anonymous was a woman named Marta Hillers. True, she writes without self-pity but, frankly if two women, instead of two men had written the forward and introduction, I think they would have better emphasized how the author’s anguish consistently leaps off the pages. It was an extraordinary book to read, but not an easy one.

One of Hillers most poignant passages comes after she has sex with a Russian soldier. Feeling dirty and powerless, she wishes there was more water and that it was easily obtainable, but above all, she longs for a decent bar of soap.

Prior to the Russian invasion of Berlin, a city filled with old men, women and children, the women fully comprehend what will happen when the Red Army arrives. Often using gallows humor, these proper middle class women not only understand and try to mentally prepare for the anticipated rapes, but they speak frankly and painfully discuss their feelings after the assaults.

The events in the book take place over approximately two months in the spring of 1943, but Woman in Berlin was first published in Germany in 1953. It outraged the German public, a populace who thought they would rule the world. The fact that they could not even protect their women was more than many could handle. Thus, the book was summarily dismissed as one that simply wanted to “besmirch the honour of German women.”

Everyday rules don’t apply in wartime and Hillers shows how sisterly bonds can help women survive unspeakable trauma. When you realize that seventy years after events in this book, today’s rape victims often can’t or won’t tell another soul what happened to them, the bravery and fortitude of Hillers and her cohorts is all the more extraordinary.

War, indeed, creates odd bedfellows. We learn that the women shared heartbreak, but neighbors, as best they could, also shared food, water and fuel. However, when war ends and “normalcy” returns, that sense of fellowship vanishes.

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