2017 Selections

February 2017

The UN Women/UN Women USA Gulf Coast  Book Club met on Monday, February 13, 2017 to discuss One Child: The Story of China's Most Radical Experiment by Wall Street Journal reporter, Mei Fong.  The overwhelming response of readers to this book was shock at the appalling facts and stories underlying the notorious one-child policy of China that lasted from 1980 - 2015.  We discussed the book by chapter subjects. “After the Quake” reveals the devastating effects of the earthquakes of Tangshan in 1976, and Sichuan in 2008, the year of the Beijing Olympics when the disaster was hushed.  Fong's major point is the heartbreak and despair of parents of only children killed in the 2008 quake.  She also confides to the reader that she is pregnant.   The second chapter, “And the Clock Struck 8/8/08” refers to China's obsession with global ascendancy epitiomized in the Olympics, the slavish training of its athletes and the extravagant opening ceremonies.  Though Fong explained that she had had difficulty retaining previous pregnancies, she poignantly reveals her heartbreak as she loses this baby, too.  
 
In “Cassandra and the Rocketmen” we learn why the one-child policy was enacted:  authorities believed that it would be easy to curb population growth as part of the struggle to raise GDP.  Many conferences and factions argued this concept leading up to 1980 but, in the end, the one-child political machine became irreversible.  In hindsight, it's obvious that China's economic growth was already developing and would have continued to do so without this draconian legislation.  “The Population Police” were a large part of the one-child bureaucracy.  Ubiquitous in every village and city, they monitored pregnancies, enforcing the legal childbearing age of twenty-four.  The legal age for marriage was twenty for women and twenty-two for men.  Punishments for illegal child-bearing ranged from penalty fees of thousands of yuan that peasants could not pay, to immediate abortions even in the last months of gestation, to outright murder of new-borns.  Fong relates shocking stories of such atrocities.  
 
“Little Emperors, Grown Up” tells the well-known story of the spoiled only child, adding that the single children suffer from extreme stress and loneliness.  Test-taking causes many suicides among these children whose parents not only dote but count on them for their own survival.  
 
“Welcome to the Dollhouse” explores the results of the biggest gender imbalance in the world: by 2020 China will have 30-40 million surplus men.  Bachelors must now pay dowries, have an apartment and sufficiently gainful employment to attract a bride.  The author visits strange singles clubs, tells  about the kidnapping and importation of brides from surrounding countries and even the manufacture of a popular sex doll!
Fong deals with the pathetic aging population that has no children to take care of them in “Better to Struggle to Live on, than Die a Good Death.”  Hospices and even cemetery plots are often unavailable to such people.  Medical insurance is sometimes available, but inadequate.  Superstitions abound about dying without someone to pay homage to your soul; wandering as a Hungry Ghost for eternity.
 
In “The Red Thead Is Broken,” Fong deals with foreign adoptions of about 120,000 girl babies from China and how it evolved into a baby-buying racket.  Ironically, “Babies beyond Borders” deals with infertility clinics! The birth rate has dropped precipitously over the decades of one-child births, and there are currently forty million women experiencing infertility.  
 
We were happy, however, to learn that Mei Fong eventually gave birth to twin sons, “Eternal Virtue” and “Steadfast Virtue.”   
 
This is but a brief summary of the subjects covered in depth by Mei Fong.  Rarely has a book aroused so much interest and emotion among our readers than this one.  Anyone who wishes to understand more about China's secrets should read this book.

March 2017

The UN Women/UN Women USA Gulf Coast  Book Club met on Monday, March 13, 2017, to discuss Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement.   Clement's prose is luminous, startlingly simple, but conveys complex characters and intense emotional histories in a few vividly poetic words.  In the mountains of Guerrero, Mexico, being a girl is a dangerous thing.  In a society of women only, they must fend for themselves, as their men have left to seek opportunities elsewhere.  Ladydi Garcia Martínez is a teen-ager whose mother, like all the mothers on the mountain, disguises her as a boy, crops her hair, blackens her teeth, makes her ugly, anything to protect her from the rapacious grasp of the drug lords. When the black SUVs roll up the mountain, Ladydi and her friends hide in holes in their backyards. Here in the shadow of the drug war, bodies turn up on the outskirts of the village to be taken back to the earth by scorpions and snakes. School is held sporadically, when a volunteer can be coerced away from the big city for a semester.
 
While her mother waits in vain for her husband’s return, Ladydi and her friends dream of a future that holds more promise than mere survival, finding humor, solidarity and fun in the face of so much fear and tragedy.  There is a lot of dark humor in this story, especially from Ladydi's mother, a cynical alcoholic also hooked on television, with a beer-bottle cemetery out back.  She calls her daughter Ladydi as a memorial to the princess who, like her, was betrayed by a scoundrel.  When Ladydi is offered work as a nanny for a wealthy family in Acapulco, she seizes the chance, and finds her first taste of love with a young caretaker there. But when a local murder tied to the cartel implicates a friend, Ladydi’s future takes a dark turn as she is arrested as a suspect.  A brilliant account of prison life  follows, with unforgettable characters, such as Georgia, a British citizen caught with heroin in the heels of her platform shoes who is ridiculed as “bringing coals to Newcastle;” Luna, a Guatemalan who killed her two daughters rather than watch them starve, and whose arm was ripped off by a train she fell off trying to cross the border; and Aurora, a former sex slave, who fumigates the prison to get high on the poisonous gas and is slowly dying.  Despite the odds against her, Ladydi's resilience brings hope to otherwise heartbreaking conditions.  In the end, her mother rises to the fore, bails her out of jail and arranges an escape across the border where she will “wash all the dishes in the United States … and never tell anyone where we came from.”  A superb and illuminating book!

April 2017

The UN Women/UN Women USA Gulf Coast  Book Club met on Monday, April 10, 2017 to discuss Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn, who reveals an underside to Jamaica, an island that most outsiders view simply as a paradise.  Three women form a triangle of anger and pain; Delores the mother, who sells souvenirs in a marketplace and sexually exploits her daughter, Margot, who, in turn, prostitutes herself and other young women at the luxury hotel where she vyes for power.  However, she is dedicated to protecting her much younger sister, Thandi, and she is ambitious for her to pursue education and an illustrious career that will lift the family out of poverty and degradation.  When plans for a new hotel threaten to bull-doze their village, Margot sees an opportunity for her own advancement at the cost of her community.  She deceives Verdene, the woman she truly loves, into signing away her home, and loses her definitively when Verdene uncovers her betrayal.  Thandi falls in love with a “street boy,” who puts her future at risk, and Delores rants abusively at her two daughters in the background.  The crux of the story is the use of sexuality for survival.  
 
We had a very intense discussion of this issue, and how it affects women around the world.  Raising awareness is part of the crusade used by UN Women agencies globally, most recently directed towards men, as well, in the “He for She” movement.  Readers appreciate our long history of reading personal narratives from women in developing countries in order to better understand their struggles. 

May 2017

The UN Women/UN Women USA Gulf Coast  Book Club met on Monday, May 8, 2017,  to discuss The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu:  And Their Race to Save the World's Most Precious Manuscripts, by Joshua Hammer.  This is the extraordinary story of  Malian librarian, Abdel Kader Haidara who, in his father's footsteps, collected ancient Islamic and secular manuscripts on every subject from astronomy to zoology that were hidden and deteriorating in caves and cellars of pastoralists and farmers.  Haidara's goal was to preserve this patrimony in a central institute in Timbuctu for posterity.  But when Al Quaeda invaded Mali in 2012, they threatened to destroy all the precious manuscripts they could find, along with Mali's monuments, mosques, art and art objects.  Haidara organized a heroic heist to smuggle all 350,000 manuscripts to a safe haven in Bamako, a scheme that reads like a thriller.  Many of the manuscripts are described in their historical contexts, including ancient African empires like Songhai, Mali and Timbuctu.  Their subject matter, methods of inscribing, or later printing these works provides a fascinating account of  a highly developed African Arab civilization.  This book is not only beautifully written, it is a cultural trove.

June 2017

The UN Women/UN Women USA Gulf Coast  Book Club met on Monday, June 12, 2017 to discuss The Moor's Account by Laila Lalami.  The Moor is Mustafa al-Zamori, renamed Estebanico, the first black explorer of America who is the slave of Spanish conquistador, Dorantes.  He sails for the Americas in 1527 as part of a danger-laden expedition to Florida that also includes famous Spanish explorers, Cabez de Vaca and Pánfilo de Narváez.   As they traverse Hispaniola en route to Florida, most of their ships are destroyed by hurricanes.  Trekking up the Golf Coast of Florida, across the panhandle and into Mexico, they encounter “bowel disease” and hostile Indians who blame them for bringing disease, as well as general mayhem to their people.  Estebanico befriends several Indian tribes, however, who marvel at his skin color, and he learns their languages, eventually marrying a beautiful woman.  Old World roles of slave and master fall away, and Estebanico remakes himself as an equal, a healer and a remarkable storyteller, who seeks to record the truth of his abysmal voyage and the shameless behavior of the Spanish conquistadors.  
 
Readers found Lalami's writing, as well as her subject, worthy of an American Book Award, but felt that it needed editing in so far as informing the reader where the expedition actually travelled, as names of that era only were used, and presented a mystery solved by some readers' research into maps and the history of those times.

September 2017

The UN Women/UN Women USA Gulf Coast  Book Club met on Monday, September 11, 2017 to discuss Hanna's Daughters by Marianne Fredriksson. First of all, it is of interest to us that UN Women has 14 national committees and the Swedish National Committee for UN Women is one of them.  It focuses on information/education, advocacy/lobbying and fundraising, as does the U.S. National Committee. 
 
Set against the backdrop of the 1870s Swedish-Norwegian Union crisis, the Great Depression and WWII, the plot skillfully interweaves the stories of three generations of women. Born in 1871, grandmother Hanna is a woman of "sense and continuity," but her life is blighted when she is raped and impregnated by a cousin at the age of 12.  Her daughter, Johanna, an atheist-socialist is contemptuous of her mother, whose life has been so deprived that she must learn about mirrors, indoor plumbing and electricity. Johanna's daughter, Anna, is a writer hungering to understand her antecedents. Ultimately, Anna acknowledges that she cannot find "a way home" in her research about her family; instead, she discovers that everything about them is "full of contradictions." Yet, the unsentimental depictions of women's inner lives, of the resentment and bitterness that undermine many family relationships and of the harsh truths that can never be spoken, create a portrait of the spiritual isolation that often occurs in the absence of such connection.  We discussed the differences in the three women that reflect the eras in which they live, and agreed that, in many ways, their personalities reflect global, at least Western, profiles.  Ancient patterns are passed on from mothers to daughters, who have daughters, who then ... "  Fredriksson's writing is beautiful, as she develops clear sketches of every character, often using place -- fishing villages, winter landscapes, outdoor markets --  as  backgrounds to their portraits. 

October 2017

The UN Women Book Club met on Monday, October 9, 2017, to discuss The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy.  Since her best seller, The God of Small Things, twenty years ago, Roy has published eight books on themes of political activism, mainly focusing on India's abuse of its poor.  She received the Cultural Freedom Prize awarded by the Lannan Foundation in 2002.  Politics totally inform this new work of fiction.  Her magical reality is as amazing as ever, though, especially depicted in her cast of  characters, like Aftab/Anjum, the hijra, and Tilottoma, a Kashmiri revolutionary.  She has a jaundiced view of India's modern -- she would say so-called -- development.  While prosperous Indians applaud the evolution of modern buildings and foreign goods, Roy decries the slum people whose shanties are bull-dozed and buried, often along with their bodies.  She notes, wryly, "Somebody had to pay the price for progress."  
 
Though we appreciated Roy's compelling, unique writing style, readers all agreed that it was a difficult book to follow.  Time lines are arbitrary, there are few transitions among many changes of scene, and we constantly lost our bearings from chapter to chapter.  Roy knows this, and apologizes.  Writing about Kashmir, she writes, "There's too much blood for good literature."  Maybe a good editor would have helped.

November 2017

The UN Women Book Club met on Monday, November 13, 2017 to discuss The Leavers by Lisa Ko, a novel that won the 2016 PEN/Bellweather Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction established by Barbara Kingsolver.  The Leavers was inspired by a 2009 New York Times story about an undocumented immigrant woman who was held, largely in solitary confinement, for more than a year and a half.  In the novel, Deming Guo’s mother, Polly, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, goes to her job at a nail salon —and never comes home. No one can find any trace of her.  With his mother gone, eleven-year-old Deming is left mystified and bereft. Eventually adopted by a pair of well-meaning white professors, they move Deming from the Bronx to a small town upstate and rename him Daniel Wilkinson. Far from all he’s ever known, Daniel struggles to reconcile his adoptive parents’ desire that he assimilate, but he cannot forget his mother and the community he left behind.  Ko tells the story from the perspective of both Deming—as he grows into a directionless young man—and Polly, a complex mother -- loving and selfish, determined and frightened, forced to make one heart-wrenching choice after another.
 
Readers appreciated the timeliness of this novel and its treatment of arbitrary deportation of people like Polly who are forced to leave their children behind. Ko has deep perceptions of this situation, as a result of being the only Asian child in her community in suburban New Jersey, an outsider.  However, some readers found her use of first person with Polly and third person with Deming confusing, and the evolution of Polly in China into an accomplished professional educator unconvincing.  This is Ko’s first book, and could have used a better editor, but we certainly look forward to her next novel.  

December 2017

The UN Women Book Club met on Monday, December 22, 2017 to discuss The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West, by Michelle Goldberg. Eugenia Labunskaia was born in Riga, attended drama school in Moscow as a girl, became an actress and dancer, and escaped to Berlin with her mother, a well-known actress, when the Bolseviks came to power. Her fascination with India and yoga began when she was 15 and she sailed there in 1927 when she adopted her stage name, Indra Devi. She studied with famous gurus, such as Sri Krishnamacharya, Sathya Sai Baba, Vivekananda and Iyenar, and became adept at practicing and teaching yoga. In 1939 she went to China to open a school, while she lived with Madame Chiang Kai-shek. In 1953 she married German physician, Dr. Sigfried Knauer, and was granted American citizenship. She migrated to Mexico in 1961 where she opened the Indra Devi International Training Center for Yoga, and in 1985 moved to Argentina, where she died in 2002 at 103. Devi’s life was certainly audacious and fraught with adventures that are only hinted at here. The history of the Theosophist Society in England is fascinating, as is Devi’s experience in Shanghai during the Japanese invasion, and her visit to Moscow at the height of the Cold War. Her friends and supporters included Gloria Swanson, the Aldous Huxleys, Greta Garbo, Eva Gabor and violinist Yehudi Menuhin, among other luminaries. Such an incredible life has all the makings of a riveting narrative but, unfortunately, our readers found it be written in a dry journalistic style that did not delve into the inner lives of any of the characters, not even Indra Devi’s. Read as a history of dates, places and ideas, however, it is an informative book.