2016 Selections

January 2016

The UN Women/UN Women USA Gulf Coast  Book Club met on Monday, January 11, 2016 to discuss Backlands by Victoria Schorr.  Set in the Sertao of northeastern Brazil, Backlands tells the true story of nomadic outlaws who reigned over the area from about 1922 until 1938, led by the famous bandit, Lampiao, and his lover, Maria Bonita.  This is a love story, comparable to Bonnie and Clyde, though it is also rich in the history and politics of this part of Brazil.  The author describes the dry, forbidding, wild landscape vividly, creating a stark setting for the characters who roam, know and love it.  Universal themes permeate the story:  freedom vs security; passion vs contentment, suffering vs happiness.  Most dramatically, Schorr describes the ambiguity that exists between the bandits and the police who grudgingly respect the elusive Lampiao  for his clever, though illegal capers that actually bond them over the years.  This book is riveting, to be read more for enjoyment than analysis, though its deeper aspects emerge like the dark hills of the backlands.  

February 2016

The UN Women book Club met on Monday, February 8, 2016 to discuss Waiting on Zapote Street: Love and Loss in Castro's Cuba by Betty Viamontes.  This book is a fictionalized account of the author's coming of age as Castro's revolution evolves into a Communist dictatorship.  The main protagonists are her parents, Rio and Laura, who desperately try to leave Cuba for the United States by circuitous routes, including Rio's flight to Spain where he hopes to emigrate to the U.S.  Laura, in the meantime, struggles to survive in Cuba with her three children, as years pass and the government becomes more and more oppressive.  Rio eventually moves to Miami, and is able to visit his family briefly.  Finally, the government's announcement of the famous Mariel boat lift gives Laura the chance to escape with her children, albeit after passing several days in a nightmarish concentration camp, El Mosquito.  Viamonte's memoir/novel captivated readers with its intimate portrayal of the impact of la revoluçion, as she poignantly describes the political actions that led to paranoia, deprivation and suffering of Cuban people like her family.  
An interview with the author enhanced our understanding of her motivations to write the book – fulfilling a promise made to her mother – and we are glad to know that she is planning a sequel that will describe her family's fate after their arrival in the U.S.  Several participants had traveled to Cuba or are planning to go, and their personal experiences further amplified our discussion. 

March 2016

The UN Women/UN Women USA Gulf Coast  Book Club met on Monday, March 14, 2016 to discuss Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War by Svetlana Alexievich.  The author, from Belarus, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015 “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.” We referred to Masha Gessen's interview with Alexievich, published in The New Yorker, in which she writes, “The voices in this book speak against two different backgrounds: the ten-year war in Afghanistan, and a great turbulence at the heart of Soviety society.”   Alexievch's book is an collage of hundreds of oral histories of mothers, soldiers and civilians, whom she interviewed up to twenty times each, then transcribed and distilled over a period of many years.  “Wars are fought on the backs of women,” she writes.  “My aim is to describe feelings about the war, rather than the war itself.  What are people thinking?  What do they want, or fear?  What makes them happy?  What do they remember?”  While the stories are often brutal and heart-breaking -- especially those of mothers of sons who came home in zink coffins -- the more we read the more deeply impressed we became by the author's monumental success in exposing not only the inhumanity of war, but its profound effect on human beings who suffer through them.  She focuses on women.  “Women tell things in more interesting ways.  They live with more feeling. They observe themselves and their lives.  Men are more impressed with action.” 
Our discussion grew quite passionate, reflecting the visceral responses that we felt upon reading the women's stories, and learning about soldiers eighteen to twenty years old who were ground up in the machine of the Afghanistan war, while the general population knew nothing about what was happening there.  The secrecy of the Soviet Union's operations and the shameful rejection of veterans upon their return was totally akin to our American experience in Vietnam, as brilliantly compared by Larry Heineman in his foreword.  
Our Un Women Book Club is known for delving into deep, often painful subjects.  For over eight years, we have aspired to share the challenges of women around the world, to eschew what Alexievich calls “...an environment of banality.” Once again, our understanding was heightened, thanks to this phenomenal author.

April 2016

The UN Women/UN Women USA Gulf Coast  Book Club met on Monday, April 11, 2016 to discuss The Reed Flute by Tessa West.  The book was discovered by Merril Kaegi, who joined Minnesota Women's Press “Books Afoot” program in East Anglia, where they hiked, read and visited several authors, including Tessa West.  This remarkable book centers on an Iraqi grandfather, Abbas, and his young granddaughter, Khadija, who arrive in East Anglia after two years of refugee camps and grueling treks across the Middle East and Europe.  They eventually find a relation in Great Yarmouth, but Khadija dislikes the situation and lures her grandfather to pursue a friend in Norwich.  Their adventure takes them through The Broad, a marshland surrounding the Yare River.  They walk for many days and nights, hungry, freezing, Khadija with an injured foot.  But Abbas is thrilled and strengthened to find himself in an environment that is similar to his homeland in the Iraqi marshlands.  Descriptions of both wetlands are vivid with details of flora, birds and scenery.  Another story runs parallel to Khadija's and Abbas' pilgrimage, that of Richard, a widower and oboe player, whose long bird-watching walks lead him to rescue the lost refugees.  
The author's idea of comparing rudderless characters wandering similar but far-flung delta lands is visually amazing and historically edifying.  While critiques of this book were not unvaryingly positive, most of us gave it an enthusiastic thumbs up.

May 2016

The UN Women/UN Women USA Gulf Coast  Book Club met on Monday, May 9, 2016 to discuss Cold Water: Women and Girls of Lira, Uganda by Dr. Jody Lynn McBrien and Julia Gentleman Byers.  Dr. McBrien joined us for a first-hand account of the years she has spent in Lira, her collaboration with Julia Byers, and to share stories of the women and girls who survived abduction by Joseph Kony's Lord Resistance Army.  She explained the difficulty of “insider/outsider” relationships, finding that the best approach is, in the words of Chinese Doctor Y.C. Chen, “Go to the people.  Live among them.  Learn from them.  Love them.”  Dr. McBrien also explained the concept of “post-traumatic growth,” evidenced in many women who wished to transcend their awful suffering and look to a future. She described a Ugandan culture of forgiveness and acceptance that always amazes her.  We discussed the history of Uganda from colonialism to Idi Amin to the decades-long ruler, President Museveni.  And we were glad to know of UN Women activities in Uganda that addresses, it seems, all the needs of women and girls that Dr. McBrien had witnessed.  Our discussion was informative and fascinating, and we're gratified to know that all proceeds of the book go the women and girls of Lira. 

June 2016

The UN Women/UN Women USA Gulf Coast  Book Club met on Monday, June 13,2016 to discuss The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai.  Desai won the Man Booker Prize in 2006, among many other awards.  Her mother is Anita Desai, also an award-winning writer, who we read last year with great interest and pleasure.  Kiran writes in an exquisite style laced with poetic metaphors, fraught with tensions among a kalediscope of characters who live near the Darjeeling Hills of northern India during the 1980s when a revolution exploded for the independence of Ghorkhaland for Nepalis in India.  Far-reaching effects of colonialism mark the isolated grandfather judge, who learned self-loathing under the Raj, along with aunties of a certain age.  The judge's grand-daughter, Sai, loses both scientist parents in Russia to a car accident, and finds a lonely refuge in his sprawling, decrepit home.  The cook's son, Biju, finds only suffering in the dungeons of undocumented immigrants in America's cities, until he desperately returns to his father, losing everything along the way.  Desai describes the myriad characters' lives as rather idyllic until history catches up with them and everyone feels the inheritance of their losses.  In Desai's words: 
This was how history moved, the slow build, the quick burn, and in an incoherence, the  leaping both backward and forward, swallowing the young into old hate.  The space  between life and death, in the end, too small to measure.

July 2016

The UN Women/UN Women USA Gulf Coast  Book Club met on Monday, July 11, 2016 to discuss  Katherine Zoepf's Excellent Daughters: The Secret Lives of Young Women Who Are Transforming the Arab World.  Zoepf is a journalist who has been writing about Arab countries for major publications for over a decade.  In this book, she focuses on women of Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Dubai, reporting through interviews their attitudes and means of dealing with repression, either by rebelling and joining covert movements for progress and liberation or, alternatively, by acquiescing to traditions that they feel protect them.   Zoepf recounts women's views on the hijab (“why are westerners so obsessed?”), gender mixing, arranged marriages, education, health services, the Arab spring, religion and women's rights.  She describes women of Lebanon as "the most promiscuous virgins in the world," an eye-opener for most readers. She also writes about young friendships among women in Saudi Arabia that often sadly end when a woman marries.  She recounts cases of honor killings of women that were carried out with impunity, and explores the idea that such traditions derive from Bedouin customs, not Islam.  Zoepf writes about the Qubaisi sisterhood, a secret, all-female Islamic study group with offshoot groups in other Arab countries, whose goal is to defend themselves according to the Koran.  “It is only ignorant women who are bullied by men in the name of Islam.”  She reports a 35-40% rise among women in the work force between the ages of 25-29 during 2000 and 2006, in spite of family and social stigmatism.  We were shocked to learn that nearly 98% of all Egyptian women undergo FGC, a practice that Dr. Nawal el Saadawi, an 80-year old author and activitist, head of the Eygptian Womens Union has been battling against for decades.  
Zoepf's book is dense with stories surrounding issues of Arab women.  Her success is due, in large part, to the fact that “A female journalist is permitted glimpses behind closed doors that may be unavailable to men.” Most readers thought that her writing style offered intimate insights into the lives of Arab women, while others felt that her writing was journalistic and impersonal.  In any case, we learned a great deal from the book, and were reminded of past lessons from other books we have read about courageous women of the Arab world.

September 2016

The UN Women/UN Women USA Gulf Coast  Book Club met on Monday, September 12, 2016, to discuss Putin Country by Anne Garrels.  Garrels was a reporter for NPR and ABC until her retirement in 2012.  She has spent many years in the provincial city of Chelyabinsk, near the southern Ural Mountains.  She writes about every aspect of life in this rural area, providing an understanding of the country, and its mentalities, with insights that elude many overtly political books.  She profiles teachers, children, prostitutes, doctors, and laborers, to illustrate the economic and cultural life that followed the collapse of the Gorbachev and Yeltsin governments, a time when personal savings disappeared, and life became a daily grind of coping with critical shortages of food and medical supplies on reduced paychecks.  She cites numerous examples of corruption and crime, ongoing intimidation and even murder of non-compliant citizens.  She describes the Eastern Orthodox Church as a propaganda tool for Putin, who is seen by many as a savior of the people, in spite of his merciless control of media, the judiciary and prisons, where torture is common. She points to the disintegration of roads, lack of replacement parts for machinery, alcoholism and early death rates where hospital patients now supply their own bed sheets and surgical supplies. Putin’s use of non-White Russians from the Caucuses to fill the military ranks, she suggests, fills the dual purpose of holding and increasing former Soviet borderlands to appease his opponents bent on returning Russia to its former Soviet size and status, while spotlighting Putin as the heroic father of the nation. 
One reader felt that Garrells seemed to echo Svetlana Alexeivich's book, The Last of the Soviets.  (We read Nobel Prize Winner' Alexeivich's seismic Zinky Boys a few months ago.)  Readers also recalled our readings of  Masha Gessen's books, The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, and Words Will Break Cement (about the Pussy Riot.)  Garrels book further deepened our knowledge of Putin and his country.

October 2016

The UN Women/UN Women USA Gulf Coast  Book Club met on Monday, October 10, 2016 to discuss The Door by Hungarian author, Magda Szabo.   Szabo was one of Hungary's most important 20th century writers but, sadly, little of her work has been translated into English.  The Door is about two women in Budapest: Magda is a well-known author, abstracted, literary and religious, who has been politically rehabilitated by Communist Hungary, and Emerence is her housekeeper.  Their relationship exposes the deep  inadequacies of human communication even as it evokes the agonies of Hungary's recent history.  Emerence is an extremely complex character who could barely read or do simple sums, but she is brilliantly intuitive.  She claims not to believe in God, mostly because the Sisters of Charity gave her a woolen cloak instead of an evening dress, but every day she performs Christian good works that would never occur to church-going Magda.  Emerence’s main goal in life is to build a Taj Mahal-like mausoleum, have her nephew exhume all her deceased family members and place them in it with her, though she did not seem to love them.  Emerence is physically powerful, stern and aloof.  She takes care of everyone who needs it in their neighborhood, and sustains Magda through her husband's grave illness.  When Magda adopts a male dog, Emerence names it Viola, and swiftly develops a mystical communication with it.  Viola becomes a central character in the book -- a truly great literary dog --  who forms a bridge essential to the two women's love for each other.  But even after twenty years Emerence does not allow Magda or anyone else to enter the door to her house.  This dramatic metaphor is the crux of the story.   In the end, Magda eventually crosses the threshold into Emerence's bizarre household of secrets that should not be revealed in a review.  Emerence's last days are filled with suffering and betrayal, largely of her own making.  The narrator poignantly observes that it will never be possible “...to soften the fate of a woman for whom no one has made a place in their life.”

November 2016

The UN Women/UN Women USA Gulf Coast  Book Club met on Monday, November 14, 2016 to discuss Rebel Queen by Michelle Moran.  The Indian Rebellion of 1857 - 1859 was waged unsuccessfully  against the rule of the British East India Company, though it led to its dissolution in 1858.  Thereafter, the British reorganised its army, financial system and administration in India, and the country was became directly governed by the crown as the new British Raj, with Queen Victoria ruling as Emperor of India.  
The heroine of this historical narrative is Queen Lakshmi of Jhansi, who raised two armies, male and female, and rode into battle against the British.  Her story is told from the unique perspective of Sita, the Queen's closest confidante and most trusted soldier in the Durgavasi, her army of women.  Moran has woven an already dramatic tale into a novel of personal lives, court intrigues, perspectives of Indian village life and traditional royal dynasties.  Her writing brings to life a crucial period in India's history that foreshadowed a century of  brutal colonial oppression.  Readers were unanimous in applauding this book.  We drew analogies among global crises caused by clashes of culture, even within the same nation.  Aware of our own national crisis our discussion was somber, marked by a moment of silence, tinged with contemplation. 

December 2016

The UN Women/UN Women USA Gulf Coast  Book Club met on Monday, December 12, 2016 to discuss The Kindness of Enemies by Leila Aboulela, a Sudanese author.   The book consists of two stories, that of Natasha, a half Russian, half Sudanese professor of history who, in 2010, is researching the life of Imam Shamil, the nineteenth century Muslim leader who led the anti-Russian resistance during the Caucasian War.  When Natasha discovers that her star student, Oz, is not only descended from the warrior but also possesses Shamil's priceless sword, the Imam's story comes vividly to life.  As Natasha's relationship with Oz and his alluring actress mother intensifies, Natasha is forced to confront issues she had long tried to avoid, especially that of her Muslim heritage.  Readers agreed that the alternate story of Imam Shamil and his role in the Caucasian War of 1817-1864, when the Russian Empire waged a brutal war against Chechnya, Dagestan, the Circassians and many other ethnic groups of the region, was a far more fascinating tale than that of Natasha.  The story of Shamil's capture of Anna, the Princess of Georgia, with her children, and her consequent relationship with Shamil is perhaps the most riveting part of the saga.  The heroic resistance of Imam Shamil and his mountain people endured from 1834 to 1859, when they were finally defeated by Russian forces.  A tragic page in the history of the indigenous Muslim peoples of the Caucasus was their exile to the Ottoman Empire.  
Once again, we shared an engrossing story of a provocative historical period, alongside a rather weak attempt to examine the situation of Muslims in today's world.