2020 Selections

January 2020

The UN Women-USA GCC Book Club met on Monday, January 13, 2020 to discuss The Other Americans by Moroccan-American author, Laila Lalami. The story opens with the hit-and-run death of the family patriarch, Driss. It unfolds into a family saga, a mystery, social commentary and a love story. Nine characters tell the tale from the perspectives of Driss, the immigrant father, his wife, Maryam who laments her homeland, Nora, their musician daughter, feuding neighbors and a sympathetic police woman, providing different lenses for racial and class tensions. Nora decides her father was murdered, not killed in an accident and lays the groundwork for what becomes a murder mystery.  The title suggests the outsiders, the “other” Americans, a plight common to most immigrants in the United States. When Driss’ first store is burned down by malicious racists, Nora wonders. “He had seen this kind of thing before in the Casablanca protests of 1981. He shook his head in disbelief. I think he was just realizing that he had moved six thousand miles for safety only to find that he was not safe at all.” Maryam wants to return to Morocco, but Driss refuses and resurrects his business.
 
Some readers thought that the theme of culture clashes that immigrants incite among their host populations was not developed strongly enough, but most readers admired Lalami’s treatment of this global phenomenon.

February 2020

The UN Women-USA GCC Book Club met on Monday, February 10, 2020 to discuss Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead, by Olga Tokarczuk, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 2019. This tale of an elderly female eccentric investigating the murders of humans and animals in a remote forest community pursues the alliance of power, money and patriarchy to its grisly conclusion, sounding a klaxon that seems entirely in tune with our current political and environmental crisis.
 
Her interior monologue is dotted with odd proper nouns—Animals, Ailments, Night, Being—lending them weight and taking a cue from the Old English of poet William Blake. The novel’s title is lifted from Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and each chapter heading is a quote from Blake. Tokarczuk is a leftist, a vegetarian, and a feminist. She has been criticized by some groups in Poland as unpatriotic, anti-Christian and a promoter of eco-terrorrism. She has denied the allegations, has described herself as a "true patriot" and has said that groups criticizing her are xenophobic and damage Poland's international reputation.
 
Her publisher, Fitzcarraldo, however, had to assign her a bodyguard after this book was published in Poland. Tokarczuk is also an existentialist, points of which readers discussed, and agreed that she does share those attributes with the French existentialists we had read in the past.
 
While her writing is sometimes gory, often polemical, a sense of humor runs through the book, such as when she writes about men’s afflictions of “testosterone autism.” Her themes are death and attitudes about it, animals, nature, astrology, the human body and its miraculous intricacies. “There is no other access to other people or to the world other than by way of the body.”
 
Her book, Flights, won the Nike Award, Poland's top literary prize, in 2008 and the Man Booker International Prize in 2018. Flights is not a traditional novel, but was one of the glittering historical and geographical collages that Tokarczuk calls her “constellation novels.”
 
Since 1998, Tokarczuk has lived in a small village near the Czech in a rural area of Lower Silesia that only became part of Poland after the second world war from where she also manages her private publishing company Ruta with her translator partner and their dogs. Readers unanimously agreed that reading Olga Tokarczuk is, in fact, an unexpected, fascinating literary experience.

March 2020

The UN Women-USA GCC Book Club met on Monday, March 9, 2020 to discuss Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World. Shafak is a  Turkish-British  writer and an outspoken activist on women's rights, minority rights and freedom of speech. Basically, she feels that "In Turkey, men write and women read. I want to see this change.” She is a remarkable story-teller who reveals political and cultural issues within the context of a compelling tale, like this one.
 
In the pulsating moments after she has been murdered by fundamentalist fanatics, and left in a dumpster outside Istanbul, Tequila Leila enters a state of heightened awareness. Her heart has stopped beating but her brain is still active―for 10 minutes, 38 seconds. While the Turkish sun rises and her friends sleep soundly nearby, she remembers her life―and the lives of others, outcasts like her.
 
Leila’s memories bring us back to her childhood in the provinces, where she was sexually abused by an uncle and oppressed by her father. Escaping to Istanbul, Leila makes her way to the city’s historic Street of Brothels, a dark, violent world, but Leila is tough and open to beauty, light, and the essential bonds of friendship. With a talent for excellent character development Shafak creates Leila’s five prostitute friends who have become her family: Sabotage Sinan, Nostalgia Nalan, Jameelah, Zaynab122 and Hollywood Humeyra.
 
As Leila is dying she thinks of the secrets and wonders of modern Istanbul. “The city belongs to the dead” … unlike European cities, graveyards are inside the city. “In Istanbul it was the living who were the temporary occupants .. White headstones met citizens at every turn …”
 
At times she reminds me of Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul. He believes that melancholy permeates the Turkish psyche, repressed remembrance of past greatness of the Ottoman Empire.
 
There is a rather farcical section in the middle of Shafak’s book when her friends learn that Leila has been buried in the Cemetery of the Companionless, (an actual site in Istanbul), and steal a truck, exhume her body in the middle of the night and dash away from policemen in pursuit.
 
As her epic journey to the afterlife comes to an end, it is her chosen family who brings her story to a buoyant and breathtaking conclusion.
 
Readers were unanimous in their praise for this highly unusual, beautifully written and powerful novel.

April 2020

The UN Women-USA GCC Book Club held a virtual meeting on Zoom Monday, April 13, 2020, to discuss A Door in the Earth by Amy Waldman, a former national correspondent for The Atlantic, and a reporter for the New York Times, where, as a bureau chief for South Asia, she covered Afghanistan. The novel is about a young woman, Parveen Shamsa, who was born in Afghanistan, came to the U.S. as a child and becomes a medical anthropologist. Parveen wants to do something meaningful, and is inspired by a fictional bestselling memoir Mother Afghanistan written by a U.S. opthalmologist named Gideon Crane in tribute to Fereshta, an Afghan woman who died in childbirth.
 
The book, Crane's TED Talk and his appearances, bring millions of dollars in donations to build a health clinic in Fereshta's village, which is where Parveen goes to help, and learns that the clinic stands empty with no medical staff except a doctor who visits once a week. Much of the money had been misappropriated. As Waldman said in an NPR interview, “…the idea for the novel did come out of that controversy when Three Cups Of Tea was revealed by Jon Krakauer to not be what it had seemed. … it was this memoir that had inspired so many people to donate money to build schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And it inspired many people to actually to change their lives and even go volunteer there. What interested me was less Greg Mortenson himself than the people who had believed in him.” The author is “fascinated by the power of books” and describes how Crane’s dangerous writing harmed several villagers.
 
Parveen’s university mentor, Dr. Banerjee, is the first person to warn her that Crane’s book had been subjected to “withering postcolonial critique” in the anthropology community and beyond. She tells Parveen to “beware feminism that involves …’white men saving brown women from brown men,” and serving imperial interests.
 
The author portrays Parveen as a clueless do-gooder  who believes, for example, that the road the U.S. military wants to build to the village would be wonderful, but in fact, it ends up drawing the war closer and closer and she comes to realize that that was one of the concerns the elders had when they resisted. Jamshid, an insurgent, felt that with the Americans giving orders they had no freedom in their own country.
 
Parveen also naively thinks she could simply ask the village women to name the forces oppressing them, and that would be the first step toward changing the status quo. She finally realizes that “What do you want?” was the question no one had thought to put to any of the women in the village about the road, the war, or anything else in their lives. “What do you want?”
 
Readers felt that there were many lessons in this book that we already understood, but it elicited a lively conversation on the subject of books, foreign aid and politics.

May 2020

The UN Women-USA GCC Book Club held a virtual meeting on Zoom Monday, May 11, 2020 to discuss The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste, an Ethiopian-American writer and human rights activist. A gripping novel set during Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, The Shadow King takes us back to World War II, casting light on the women soldiers who were left out of the historical record.
 
Recently orphaned Hirut struggles to adapt to her new life as a maid in Kidane and his wife Aster’s household. Kidane, an officer in Emperor Haile Selassie’s army, rushes to mobilize his strongest men before the Italians invade. His initial kindness to Hirut shifts into cruelty when she resists his advances. As the war rages on, Hirut, Aster, and many other women decide to do more than care for the wounded and bury the dead. When Emperor Haile Selassie goes into exile and Ethiopians lose hope, it is Hirut who offers a plan to maintain morale. She helps disguise a gentle peasant who uncannily resembles the emperor and she and Aster become his guards on the battlefield, inspiring other women to take up arms against the Italians.
 
This story is based on actual events and real people. Mengiste draws on her own family history, with a grandfather who fought against the Italians, and her great-grandmother who went to war during the first Italian invasion in the 1890s. “She represents one of the many gaps in European and African history.” “What I have come to understand is this: The story of war has always been a masculine story, but this was not true for Ethiopia and it has never been that way in any form of struggle. Women have been there, we are here now.”
 
Many women participated in the Patriot resistance movement, many of whom had been raped by Italian soldiers. Ethiopian women fought in combat against the Italians and took on support roles. They organised women's groups like the Ethiopian Women's Voluntary Association established in 1937 which fought alongside the Patriots. The Ethiopian Women's Patriotic Union directly aided regular Patriot forces. As co-conspirators with the Insider Patriots, members provided the resistance with food, medicine, clothing, arms and ammunition and intelligence. They took up arms, acted as lookouts, cleaned weapons on the battlefield or managed first aid stations.
 
Mengiste tells this amazing story in a writing style that is truly poetic, vivid and compelling. However, readers criticized some of her techniques, like the lack of quotation marks in dialogues, intersecting narratives, too many explosive conflicts that seem interminable, especially scenes of rape and mayhem. That said, most readers agreed that The Shadow King is a majestic historical narrative of a complex, fascinating country.
 
We also discussed Haile Selassie’s reign and the history of Rastafari, as well as the Falas Mura, the black Jews of Ethiopia who migrated to Israel.

The UN Women-USA GCC Book Club held a virtual meeting on Zoom Monday, June 8, 2020 to discuss A Tall History of Sugar by Curdella Forbes. In the late 1950s, shortly before Jamaica seizes independence from colonial rule, an infertile couple finds an infant in a basket made of reeds, among a tangle of sea grape trees by the water. They call him Moshe after the biblical Moses and happily raise him. This is a mystical tale from Jamaica of two soulmates: Moshe Fisher, born prematurely (unfinished) with mismatched eyes and pale, delicate skin, and Arrienne Christie, whose “… skin even at birth was the color of the wettest molasses, with a purple tinge under the surface.” Arrienne is Moshe’s protector at school, and later becomes his lover. They share a magical “twinship.” “…that began from the beginning, when they were able to read without error the same books on the first day of school.” “She placed the words in his head, so that they came out at his mouth, in her voice.” Their hands bled when they pried them apart; this lessens when they come of age. “Desire changes everything.”

Forbes’ writing style is very poetic in places but, as is the case so often, it could have used a good editor. Her use of thick patois is challenging and slows if not stops the reader mid-sentence. There was scant reference to sugar at all, and no real information about the history or politics of Jamaica. Changes in the narrative voice from third person to first and back are jarring. Magical realism based on African notions of Obeah are personified by the four-eyed woman with backward feet, a seer, who disappears in a cloud of black smoke at Moshe’s funeral. Perhaps a better title would have been “A Tall Tale …”

Future Readings:
As a result of our Book Club discussion, and in view of the intense global uprising against racism and police brutality, we decided to delay our regular book schedule for a month and read a noteworthy book on racism instead for July.  After perusing several web sites, the most acclaimed authors come to the fore, e.g., Ta Nehisi-Coates, Dr. Robin DiAngelo, Ibram X. Kendi, Ijeoma Olu, Trevor Noah, etc.  As I checked availability of many of these authors, I was astonished to find that they are all out of stock at amazon.com and almost all copies at the Sarasota libraries are checked out or on hold.

Choosing one book on this subject is daunting but, in the end, I chose a book that is both available and appealing to our readers:  The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison, with a Foreword by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
 
Book Club members also asked for recommendations of other books on racism.  I will forward to you lists and resources that Scott and I have found.  Though not included in these lists, I would also recommend Edwidge Danticat's Brother, I'm Dying.

August 2020

The UN Women-USA Gulf Coast Chapter Book Club met on Zoom Monday, August 10, 2020 to discuss Cantoras by Carolina DeRobertis, a story of five gay women under the Uruguayan dictatorship of 1973 – 1985, an era when homosexuality could get you killed. Unanimous accolades for this book! Readers were impressed by the intricate character development among the five protagonists, their shifting relationships, the frank portrayal of lesbian love and sex. The book is dedicated to: “Para las chicas and to all queers and women who have lived outside.”
 
In an NPR interview, the author explained: “Cantoras is a somewhat old-fashioned word for singer in Spanish. We also have the other word, cantante. And this is a word that real-life women who came out to each other as queer or lesbian under the dictatorship era used as code. It was sort of a way of looking at a woman and saying, do you think she's a cantora, too? Does she sing? - you know, wink, wink.” “The gaze had to be balanced, tempered, just long enough to make its point, but brief enough that if you’d misread a woman she could tell herself that of course it wasn’t what she’d thought. Without speaking, everything could be asked and known.”
 
Readers also appreciated the rather obscure history not only of Uruguay, but of surrounding countries like Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, as told through the women’s experiences of persecution, imprisonment, rape and paranoia that fear engenders. “Everyone has their dictatorship story.” Homosexuality “…was a crime that could land you in the same prisons as the guerrillas and the journalists, prison with torture, prison without trial. There was no law against homosexuality, but that didn’t matter because the regime did whatever it wanted, and also because there was a law against affronts to decency. Long before the coup few things had been more of an affront, more repugnant than gay people.”
 
The women find refuge in the remote sea-side village of Cabo Polonia where they buy a fisherman’s shack that they name “The Prow.” Here they feel free and find peace, love and joy in each other’s company whenever they can flee Montevideo.
 
Ironically, after more than a decade of brutal persecution of homosexual people, today Uruguay ranks five in the Gay Happiness Index, on a par with countries such as Canada, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Iceland. It was the third country to legalize gay marriage after Canada and Argentina and before the U.S. And people from everywhere flock to Cabo Polonio, known as the “perverts’ beach.”

September 2020

The UN Women-USA Gulf Coast Chapter Book Club met on Zoom Monday, September 14, 2020 to discuss Unbecoming: A Memoir of Disobedience by
Anuradha Bhagwati, a writer, activist, yoga and meditation teacher, and Marine Corps veteran. Unbecoming addresses the proverbial dilemma of a South Asian daughter pressured to fulfill her parents’ expectations. Both her parents were extremely accomplished to the point of vying for a Nobel Prize in Economics, and they constantly challenged Anuradha.
 
“The voicelessness I’d felt throughout my childhood had stoked a world of rage inside me. It was only a matter of time till it came out.”
 
Joining the U.S. Marine Corps was the most extreme form of rebellion Bhagwati could find. She held officer posts in Okinawa, Thailand and Camp Lejeune. She reveled in the most intense physical training that pushed her to her limits and sometimes beyond. She excelled as a marksman and runner. However, “Being sexually naïve and emotionally sheltered like me was deadly.” She encountered misogyny, violent assault, humiliation and degradation that distorted her very identity.
 
"Men’s words about women, the filth that was said to keep us from realizing our potential, became the core of what I believed about myself.”
The Marine Times lauded the book: “…a powerful and angry voice, which is perfectly pitched for speaking about the way the Corps repeatedly betrays
its female Marines.
 
Today, there are over 350,000 service women and 2 million women veterans in the United States – the highest number ever in history.
After finally leaving the Marines with an Eagle, Globe & Anchor military decoration, Bhagwati pursued a master’s degree in public policy at Harvard.
She was diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and then, in 2009, she founded SWAN — the Service Women’s
Action Network, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C.  that fights for military reform . SWAN’s efforts led to the repeal of the ban on women in
combat, opened all military jobs to service women, including the Navy SEALS, expanded services for a broad range of reproductive healthcare services, worked to hold sex offenders accountable in the military justice system and eliminated barriers to disability claims for those who have experienced military sexual trauma. “As a Brown woman in a sea of white dudes,” Bhagwati made sure that SWAN also provides important Anti-Racism Resources. Through yoga and meditation, which she also teaches to veterans, she has tried to “… integrate sorrow and shame into her life instead of resisting it.”

October 2020

The UN Women-USA Gulf Coast Chapter Book Club met on Zoom Monday, October 12, 2020 to discuss From Russia with Blood: The Kremlin’s Ruthless Assassination Program and Vladimir Putin’s Secret War on the West  by Heidi Blake, a global investigations editor at BuzzFeed News.
  
From Russia with Blood is a straight-ahead exposé of the facts surrounding “the Kremlin’s ruthless assassination program,” that lead to observations of “Vladimir Putin’s Secret War on the West.”  Blake’s writing style is crisp, and flows like a novel, e.g., “Putin had learned that he could murder a British citizen on the streets of the capital [London] with impunity – and Litvinenko had been only one name on the FSB’s kill list.  Who was next?”
 
In an NPR interview, Blake stated that in 2006, as Russia was preparing to host the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg, its parliament passed a law legalizing extrajudicial killings of accused "extremists" abroad. "It was an extraordinary moment," Blake says. "Even as Western leaders were sitting around the table with Putin in St. Petersburg, at that very moment, laws were being passed ... that enabled enemies of the Russian state to be murdered by Russian state agents on foreign soil with absolute impunity."
 
Blake describes life in Russia when the USSR disintegrated and oligarchs snatched up state corporations that made them exceedingly rich and corrupt. As chief of the oligarchs and President of Russia, Vladimir Putin became one of the richest and most powerful men in the world.
 
Years of investigation by BuzzFeed News reporters unveiled the truth behind the murders of several Russian defectors in Britain, along with two British citizens and victims in the United States.  The book reveals the shocking reluctance of western governments to pursue their own investigations because of the economic pressures that the Kremlin could bring to bear upon them, notably their dependence on energy from Russia. It was only after Putin snatched Crimea, invaded Ukraine where a Malaysian airplane was shot down killing 298 people that western governments realized they could not “ … bring Putin in from the cold.”  
 
Readers were unanimous in their admiration for this book and appreciated learning about the astonishing truths revealed in it.
 

November 2020

The UN Women-USA Gulf Coast Chapter Book Club met on Zoom Monday, November 9, 2020 to discuss Dogeaters by Jessica Hagedorn, a Filippina-American author, activist, playwright, poet and musician. The book was on the front cover of The New York Times Book Review when it was first published in 1990 and has been republished on its 30th anniversary because it deals with today’s political themes that were characteristic of the Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos regime. It is written in a modernist, non-linear style, though highly visual. Deborah Eisenberg, New York Times Book Review editor wrote: “Hagedorn unwaveringly paints a menacing world, one that should sound an urgent alarm to us now – but the book is so beautiful!  It’s painted in the shimmering, fierce, lush colors of memory and longing; it has the radiant evanescence of a dream – and it leaves behind the lingering authority of a dream’s veiled warning.”  
 
The President and his outlandish wife are unnamed by Hagedorn who nicknames the first lady the Iron Butterfly, as Imelda was called.  She pillories the first lady, as in a surreal chapter that ends with her “ … perched on a  throne of bananas.  She reigns from a mountain of coconuts and wears a nest of lizards in her hair.”
 
Historical events are interspersed among fictional stories, such as  President William McKinley’s initiation of the U.S.’s imperial project in 1898 …  “Initially he had planned only to set up a base in Manila, but apparently decided that while he was at it, he might as well claim sovereignty over the entire archipelago – all 7,000 island and 7 million inhabitants.”  The Philippines gained independence in 1946.
 
We had the great pleasure of Gina Walker’s participation, a Filippina-American who, she told us, was a “Marcos baby” having been raised during the 1965-1986 era when they ruled.  Gina gave us many insights into Filippina culture, its ethnic diversity, its many peoples and languages. We learned that the title is derogatory and usually refers to aboriginal tribes. She agreed with one character’s comment, “A real Pinoy – what’s most important to him – food, music, dancing and love – most probably in that order.”
 
In spite of its challenging literary style, everyone praised this remarkable book.

December 2020

The UN Women-USA Gulf Coast Chapter Book Club met on zoom Monday, December 14, 2020 to discuss Eat the Buddha: The Story of Modern Tibet through the People of One Town by Barbara Demick. Just as she did in Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, which we read some time ago, award-winning journalist Barbara Demick explores one of the most hidden corners of the world, a Tibetan town, Nqaba, that was one of the first places to be invaded by Chinese Communists. In the 1930s, Mao Zedong’s Red Army fled into the Tibetan plateau to escape their adversaries in the Chinese Civil War. By the time the soldiers reached Ngaba, they were so hungry that they looted monasteries and ate religious statues made of flour and butter—to Tibetans, it was as if they were “eating the Buddha.” The people of Ngaba resisted the Chinese for decades to come, culminating in shocking acts of self-immolation. “All the people, events, dialogue and chronology are as reported. All of them face the same dilemma: Do they resist the Chinese, or do they join them? Do they adhere to Buddhist teachings of compassion and nonviolence, or do they fight?”
 
Demick writes in a journalistic, very accessible style. She says “The level of fear among Tibetans is comparable to what I’ve seen in North Korea.” She says that she was not worried about travelling around Tibet herself, but for the Tibetans who helped her. Demick reported from Beijing for seven years. The point of her book is to reveal the truth about Tibet. The mysteries and serenity of Buddhism and Tibetan monks appears idyllic but in these pages we hear the voices of Tibetans who have been abused, persecuted, stripped of their cultural and religious identity and their freedom by the Chinese. Chinese propaganda portrays Tibetans as happy people, Lhasa as China’s “happiest city.” As self immolations continued, however, it was hard to keep up that pretense. The spiritual compulsion to self-immolate is best described by Lama Sobha who left a recording: “I am giving away my body as an offering of light to chase away the darkness, to free all beings from suffering.”
 
A Tibetan princess in her childhood, whose parents were murdered, tells Demick. “When I hear the words they use about His Holiness, the way they insult him, it gives pain to my heart and it only gives them more problems with Tibetans. I can’t understand what they are thinking.” The day the Dalai Lama left – March 10, 1959 an important anniversary for Tibetans in exile.
 
As the Dalai Lama wrote in his autobiography, My Land, My People, ”Tibet is a distinct and ancient nation, which for many centuries enjoyed a relationship of mutual respect with China.” Since his departure, the Dalai Lama had become almost mystical to Tibetans, but when people read his book they understood that he was real and the head of an entire Tibetan government in exile. Arrests and executions followed dissemination of his book.
 
There were 3,000 monks in the Kirti monastery in Nqaba. In 1998 the Chinese United Front and the State Administration for Religious Affairs showed up at Kirti. “ Re-education” and persecution of monks began. Demick also writes about the plight of Uighurs and other minority populations in China.
 
New airports and rail lines did not benefit the Tibetans who have been restricted at checkpoints. A new generation of dissidents is growing. “ Tibetans want infrastructure, they want technology, they want higher education. But they also want to keep their language and culture and their freedom of religion.” “They want the right to travel freely, to get passports, to send their kids to be educated abroad. The right to display the portrait of their spiritual leader.”
 
We had two practicing Buddhists in the group, one of whom had visited Tibet with a National Geographic team. Their personal observations on Buddhism and the plight of the Dalai Lama were insightful and intense. Participants were unanimous in their praise for this book and were inspired by our discussion.