2018 Selections

January 2018

The Un Women Book Club met on Monday, January 8, 2018 to discuss When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro, a British author born in Japan, whose family moved to England when he was five years old.  He was nominated four times for  Man Booker Awards, and won the prize with his novel, Remains of the Day, and received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017. 
 
When We Were Orphans tells the story of Christopher Banks, an English boy born in early-twentieth-century Shanghai, who is orphaned at age nine when his mother and father both vanish under suspicious circumstances. Sent to live in England, he grows up to become a renowned detective and, more than twenty years later, returns to Shanghai in 1937, where the Sino-Japanese War is raging, to solve the mystery of their disappearances.  He meets socialite Sarah Hemmings, who is also an orphan and, though they share a mutual attraction, never consummate their relationship.  Christopher adopts an orphan girl, Jennifer, whom he raises, but leaves to fulfill his duty in Shanghai.  There is an odd lack of emotion in Christopher’s relationships that is reminiscent of the butler, Stevens, in Remains of the Day.  The narrative reflects the maze of memories that preoccupy Christopher, some vivid, others shadowed.  Most readers found the plot incomprehensible, e.g., Christopher’s belief that his parents, who had never contacted him, were still alive, and the expectations of people in the international settlement that Christopher would somehow affect the international situation. His wanderings in the warren of the bombed Chinese section depict a brutal nightmare of war at its worst.    The story ends on a note of weary resignation, as Christopher retires into his small, quiet life in London.  We discussed the author’s life, as reflected, perhaps, in this account of a search for identity, and his writing style as uniquely modern.

February 2018

The UN Women Book Club Gulf Coast Chapter met on February 12, 2018 to discuss The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck, an unusual story of three widows of resisters who plotted to assassinate Hitler.  Marianne Von Lingenfels is an aristocrat who searches for the women and brings them to her Bavarian castle.  Ania is a middle-class woman who upholds the Nazi directives of her husband during the war, but ends up impersonating the widow of one of Marianne’s husband’s friends.  Benita is a peasant girl who happens to marry Marianne’s closet friend, to whom she has pledged to watch over the women and children.  We see their positions in Germany society, their reactions to Nazism, their roles during the war, and their struggles to survive at the war’s end.  The book has many other vivdly depicted characters who affect the three women, and we discussed their interactions, their effects upon one another, and their stories within the context of the horrors of war.  Everyone found the book very intriguing and beautifully written.  We also alluded to political parallels in our own time, how responsible individuals are for their leaders, and the lessons we shared from this reading.

March 2018

The UN Women Book Club Gulf Coast Chapter met on Monday, March 12, 2018 to discuss The Saffron Road: A Journey with Buddha’s Daughters, by Christine Toomey. Toomey, a war correspondent based in the world’s hottest spots, takes two years off to make a 60,000 mile journey in search of Buddhist nuns. She finds and interviews many, from Tibet and India to the United States, France and England. She paints pictures of everyone she visits, with their shaved heads and pink, maroon or saffron robes, absorbed in meditation, scholarship or even kung fu exercises. She explores the controversy over full ordination of nuns, rejected by many orders of monks, but actually encouraged by the Dalai Lama. This is a fascinating book on a subject one would rarely think about, but the nuns one meets throughout Toomey’s journey reflect a female longing for peace, understanding and enlightenment.
 
Thanks to Johnnie Bohannan for suggesting this book, and for sharing with us her own history of seven years and more of training in the Buddhist way of life. Johnnie recently returned from almost a year in Thailand, where she lived in a monastery and was sorry tempted to become a nun herself. She subsequently moved to Cambodia, which also provided ample opportunity for spiritual explorations, and international encounters with what you might call “dharma bums” during her stay there.

April 2018

The UN Women Book Club Gulf Coast Chapter met on Monday, April 9, 2018 to discuss The Girl with Seven Names: Escape from North Korea, by Hyeonseo Lee. Our reaction to this saga was incredulous shock. We could scarcely imagine a 17-year old walking across a frozen river at night from her home in North Korea to China; finding a couple her mother had traded goods with on the black market, who took her on an eight-hour train ride to distant relatives, where she spent many months, was betrothed to a young man she did not want to marry, who she finally abandoned, along with her family there.
 
She journeys to Shanghai where she finds work and makes friends, learns Chinese, but lives in terror of being discovered as a North Korean and deported. She finally makes her way to South Korea, where she finds freedom, but faces hard challenges in a world so different from her own, where she is a victim of prejudice from people she thought were like her, but discovers that after sixty years of separation, the North and South Koreans are very different people. She misses her country and her family desperately, and finally convinces her mother and brother to defect. Their journey is even more arduous, traveling thousands of miles through China to Thailand and Laos, imprisoned on the way, until they finally find themselves in South Korea with Hyeonseo, wondering if life there would be worth the suffering they went through. Hyeonseo’s never-ending travails and her great courage filled us with awe. We watched Hyeonseo’s TED talk, which was very moving in the context of her book. Though she eventually found happiness with an American husband, the crux of her suffering is that of every immigrant estranged from his or her country. “[You]probably ask yourself why a country such as mine still exists in the world. Perhaps it would be even harder to understand that I still love my country and miss it very much. I’m still the girl from Hyesan who longs to eat noodles with her family … I miss my bicycle and the view across the river into China.”

May 2018

The UN Women Book Cub, Gulf Coast Chapter, met on Monday, May 14, 2018 to discuss A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Men and Women Fighting Extremism in Africa, by Alexis Okeowo.  The author is a Nigerian-American foreign correspondent and staff writer for The New Yorker, among other prestigious publications.  The book centers on an exploration of particular issues in four African countries:  slavery in Mauritania, Boko Haram in Nigeria, Joseph Kony’s LRA in Uganda, and the subjugation of women and girls in Somalia.  The stories deal with extremism within Christianity and Islam, gender and sexuality, nationalism and race.  A protagonist in each story exemplifies the determined courage it takes to resist extremists who would destroy a country’s social fabric for its own fanatic ends.  The means to those ends include unrelenting brutal attacks by terrorists, kidnapping girls, inept government and military, child soldiers, butchering of victims, and sowing distrust among the people who fear each other, and reprisals from either government or rebels.  The author interviewed a wide range of  “ordinary men and women fighting extremism” and brought home to the reader the complexity of conflicts in each country.

June 2018

The UN Women’s Book Club, Gulf Coast Chapter, met on Monday June 11, 2018 to discuss The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby. The author, a graduate of Oxford University, is a BBC reporter since 2001. In 2014 she received the Bayeux- Calvados Award for War Correspondents for her reporting on the Lampedusa disaster.
 
Her book, which grew out of her Radio 4 interview with the Optician, tells of his experience while out boating with seven friends off the Sicilian coast of Italy in October 2013. That night, the tragic scale of the refugee crisis became clear to them. Hundreds of men women and children were drowning in the aftermath of a shipwreck. The optician and his friends saved 47. His boat was designed to hold ten people. More than 360 died. Several passing boats did not stop to help.
 
Johnnie Bohannon, with the able assistance of our North County Library staff, suggested we watch a video presentation of Emma Jane, as guest lecturer, at the West Cork (Ireland) Literary Festival 2017. The setting of the book club gathering was on the deck of the rescue ship LE Samuel Beckett. Yes, she admitted, she cried every day while writing the story. As in the book, she describes how haunted the friends became because of the tragedy. The Optician, a stand-in for Everyman, is never named, but remains in close touch with the author. Emma Jane wanted to find a way to cut through the world’s compassion fatigue. With millions of migrants escaping their countries, then finding their way to temporary havens like the small Island of Lampedusa, very cl

July 2018

The UN Women Book Cub, Gulf Coast Chapter, met on Monday, July 9, 2018 to discuss Zoli by Colum McCann. Zoli’s story is based on the life of a famous Polish Romani poet, Papusza. As a girl, Zoli travels with her grandfather in the Romany tradition in a caravan in the 1930s as fascism spreads over Europe. They flee to join a clan of Romani harpists who hide in forests. Zoli learns to read and write from her grandfather and occasional non-Roma, which was frowned upon by the Romanis, and she composes songs and poems about the plight of her people. A young English expatriate, Stephen Swann, translates her work, bringing unwelcome attention to her work from Communists who take over Eastern European countries after the war, and attempt to force the Roma to settle in houses or apartment blocks. The Roma turn against Zoli, accusing her of exposing their cultural secrets to the outside world, making them vulnerable to the new rulers. They banish Zoli from the Romani world. She wanders alone across Europe, suffering greatly, nearly starving and anguished at being a pariah to her people. She finally reaches northern Italy where she finds a haven in the mountains with an Italian husband and a daughter who, as an adult in Paris, drags Zoli back into the limelight at a conference where she again sees Swann and is again tormented by her past.
 
Readers appreciated McCann’s fine writing style and learned something about the Romani culture and history.

August 2018

The UN Women Book Club, Gulf Coast Chapter, met on Monday, August 6, 2018 to discuss Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston, edited by Deborah G. Plant, Foreword by Alice Walker.  
 
In 1927, Zora Neale Hurston traveled to Plateau, Alabama, to visit eighty-six-year-old Cudjo Lewis, who had survived the Middle Passage on the Clotilda fifty years after the slave trade had been legally abolished.  As a cultural anthropologist, Hurston deftly interviewed him, respecting his silences and moods.  Most importantly, she called him by his African name, Kussola.  He shared heartrending memories of his childhood in Africa; the attack by Dahomeyans who destroyed his village and captured many people like Kussola.  They held him in the barracoons – slave barracks --  of Ouidah for selection by American traders.  He talked about the harrowing ordeal of the transatlantic journey aboard the Clotilda, the years he spent in slavery until the end of the Civil War, the challenges of emancipation, his role in the founding of Africatown and, finally, his sorrow at losing his wife and all his children one by one.
 
Important facts came to light that were missing from most slavery narratives we had read in the past.  First of all, Hurston’s bitter comment on the first page:  
But the inescapable fact that stuck in my craw was:  my people had sold me and the white people had bought me ….  It impressed upon me the universal nature of greed and glory. 
 
Followed by Alice Walker in her eloquent Foreword: “Who could face this vision of the violently cruel behavior of the ‘brethren’ and the ‘sistren’ who first captured our ancestors.” 
 
We were also struck by the scorn with which African-Americans who had been in the country for a generation or more viewed newly arrived Africans.  Kussola speaks of his community who scrimped, saved and sacrificed to build their own Africatown in 1866.  “It was not conceived of as a settlement for blacks, but for Africans.” 
 
And Deborah Plant, the Editor:
 
Barracoon is a counter narrative that invites us to break our collective silence about slaves and slavery, about slave-holders and the American Dream.  ….  the questions it raises about slavery and freedom, greed and glory, personal sovereignty and our common humanity are as important today as they were during Kussola’s lifetime.  
 
Kussola learns about the absence of justice for his people.  But the story he wants to tell is not about slavery, but about his enduring loneliness for Africa.  Zora writes:  
 
I am sure that he does not fear death.  In spite of his long Christian fellowship, he is too deeply a pagan to fear death.  But he is full of trembling awe before the altar of the past.  
 
The Editor, Dr. Deborah Plant, fulfills an important role in organizing this book.  Besides edits, footnotes and citations, she stays true to Hurston’s language in interviews with Kussula, and adds as an appendix Kussula’s parables and an African children’s game.  She also gives the reader important background information on the refusal of Viking Press to publish Hurston’s manuscript, because she had written it phonetically in Kussula’s vernacular.  Plant also explores the charge against Hurston that she had plagiarized parts of her book, and how important Hurston was to the Harlem Renaissance, and how powerful her voice was and continues to be.  
 
The theme of our UN Women Gulf Coast Chapter this year is “The Power of Voice.”  Speaking up.  Our Book Club is focusing on “The Power of Voice through Books.”  There are few voices more powerful than Alice Walker’s and Zora Neale Hurston’s.  In Hurston’s autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, she writes presciently about her mission as her mother lay dying.
 
As I crowded in, they lifted up the bed and turned it around so that Mama’s eyes would face east.  I thought that she looked to me as the head of the bed reversed.  Her mouth was slightly open, but her breathing took up so much of her strength that she could not talk.  But she looked at me, or so I felt, to speak for her.  She depended on me for a voice.  [italics mine]
 
Our readers felt gratified to hear Hurston’s voice again in this book. Many years ago we hired a bus years ago to take us to Eatonville where Hurston grew up.  We are now inspired to make that pilgrimage again. 
 
    Leita Kaldi Davis
 
Dr. Deborah Plant has agreed to be the guest of honor at our International Women’s Day celebration March 8, 2019, to celebrate “The Power of Voice through Books.”  In February, I’ve scheduled reading of her book, Every Tub Must Sit on Its Own Bottom: The Philosophy and Politics of Zora Neale Hurston

September 2018

The UN Women Book Club, Gulf Coast Chapter, met on Monday, September 10, 2018 to discuss The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova, a novel about Bulgaria during the Communist era. Kostova is best known for her “Dracula” novel, The Historian, to which she has sold film rights. She has established a foundation in Bulgaria for creative writers and translators to promote English-Bulgarian relations.
 
The Shadow Land is a story about a young American woman, Alexandra Boyd, who has traveled to Sofia, hoping that life abroad will salve the wounds left by the loss of her beloved brother. Soon after arriving, however, she helps an elderly couple into a taxi and realizes too late that she has accidentally kept one of their bags. Inside she finds an ornately carved wooden box engraved with a name: Stoyan Lazarov. Raising the hinged lid, she discovers that she is holding an urn filled with human ashes. As Alexandra sets out to locate the family and return this precious item, she uncovers the secrets of Stoyan Lazarov who was shattered by internment in a communist labor camp. Alexandra finds out all too quickly that the political intrigue surrounding Stoyan’s secret memoirs is fraught with its own danger. Details of the gulag are vivid and shocking. Descriptions of the Bulgarian countryside and cities are brilliant, while profiles of its people are complex and convincing.
 
In researching programs of UN Women I found a report on Bulgaria in UN Women Watch. Bulgaria has apparently made great strides in supporting women. In 2016 a Law on Equality between Women and Men was adopted, and the position of a gender equality coordinator was created in every government institution that reports to the Secretariat of the National Council on Equality between Women and Men. Bulgaria is also strongly committed to the implementation of CEDAW. It ranks 41 out of 144 countries in the 2016 Global Gender Gap Report of the World Economic Forum and ranks third in the EU in terms of women’s participation in executive boards of large companies.
 
Leita Kaldi Davis

November 2018

On Thursday, November 8, 2018, the UN Women Book Club joined the African American Cultural Resource Center and Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of the Gulf Coast for a special presentation by Dr. Lesego Malepe, author of Reclaiming Home: Diary of a Journey through Post- Apartheid South Africa. She also wrote Matters of Life and Death, a fictionalized account of her own family’s tragedies during apartheid. Dr. Malepe told us about her bus trip from Pretoria to Cape Town, where she visited Robben Island, the prison where her brother, Dimake, served a life sentence during the apartheid era. “ … the harrowing memories of Dimake’s years there flood over me and sometimes threaten to drown me.”
 
She writes about attending a ceremony where settlement of land claims involved her parents whose land was confiscated by the apartheid government when she was a child, forcing her family to move into Mamelodi, a township for Africans. Though she had everyone laughing at wry stories about her misadventures, painful memories inevitably marked Lesego’s narrative with bravely suppressed grief. Through her travels she meets old friends and family whose relationships remain touchingly close, though she had been living in the United States for a long time. Meeting this remarkable, charming woman it was easy to understand how all the people she introduces us to in her book share an abiding deep affection. 
 
In South Africa, the UN Women Country Programme’s priority areas are helping the poorest women to become economically empowered and benefit from development; to address governance and national planning to include gender equality commitments in their programs; to advocate for women and girls to live free of violence; and to promote peace, safety and security and humanitarian action shaped by women’s leadership and participation. We were glad to learn from Dr. Malepe that South Africa is among the top ten countries in the world in terms of women in government (12 among 28 cabinet ministers, 10 of 21 deputy ministers and four among nine provincial premiers.) “But even so,” she adds, “South Africa has a high rate of rape and abuse of women.”