Chasing Chaos

The Book of the Week is “Chasing Chaos:  My Decade In and Out of Humanitarian Aid” by Jessica Alexander, published in 2013. This is the career memoir of an aid worker who found her calling in helping refugees of war, natural disasters and anti-government uprisings.

She interviewed the victims, wrote reports on their living conditions, pushed paper, attended meetings and held meetings, among other bureaucratic tasks– doing two-month to seven-month stints in The Sudan, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Haiti. “The martyr complex permeated my psyche, and although I desperately needed a break, I felt negligent when I left.”

In Darfur, the author learned of the pitiful situation in education by visiting a “school,” which consisted of a tent, a blackboard, benches and prayer mats. Teachers who had been working without a salary for two months told her that the ratios: of children to teachers was one hundred and fifty to one; children to notebooks was three to one, and children to lesson books was eight to one.

Alexander recounted a bizarre scene in which airport security left a lot to be desired. “The security men were looking at a blank screen. And the metal detector? It wasn’t plugged in. The airport had no power. But they put on a good show anyway…”

In recent years, Hollywood celebrities’ jumping on the international-charity bandwagon has meant a tremendous boost in the flow of money to various humanitarian causes. People have thus acquired the misguided notion that throwing money at the problems in Third-World countries, or a week-long visit to them during spring break to shovel some dirt in an attempt to rebuild, or donating old clothes to their hapless citizens, is actually what they need or want.

Read the book to learn:

why the author became frustrated and felt powerless when she was stateside again, working at the corporate office of a non-governmental organization (NGO; non-profit humanitarian aid group);

how the media do their part to raise awareness of suffering in the world;

and her course of action when she was forced to choose between her career and her life’s romantic subplot (i.e., settling down in a stable lifestyle as a member of a community).

My Guy Barbaro – Bonus Post

In honor of the Kentucky Derby, this blogger would like to report on “My Guy Barbaro” by Edgar Prado with John Eisenberg, published in 2008. This ebook tells the story of a horse named Barbaro, ridden by the author, a jockey.

Prado grew up in Lima, Peru in a poor household with seven brothers, three sisters, his mother, and a father who was a horse groomer. Two of his older brothers became jockeys. He had a natural rapport with horses, and became a licensed jockey at fifteen and a half. He graduated high school, and at eighteen, moved to Miami, Florida in 1986 for more challenging racing.

Prado rides on different horses in various states in races throughout the year. The Triple Crown is a trio of races very difficult to win. It consists of the Belmont Stakes on Long Island in New York State, the Kentucky Derby in Louisville, and the Preakness Stakes in Maryland. Up until 2008, race tracks in that third state suffered financially in the past decade, unlike those in Delaware and West Virginia, as it declined to allow cash-cow slot machines at its race tracks.

In the 2006 Kentucky Derby, Prado had the privilege of riding Barbaro, a horse that was a racing prodigy, owned by the late pop star Michael Jackson. Read the book to learn of Barbaro’s fate.

You’ll Never Nanny In This Town Again

The Book of the Week is “You’ll Never Nanny In This Town Again” by Suzanne Hansen, published in 2006. This book recounted the author’s experiences caring for the children of celebrities.

After high school, Hansen received her training at a school for nannies. She knew she was passionate about caring for children. After graduation, an agency placed her in the home of the family of a super-rich Hollywood talent agency executive. Although Hansen bonded with the three children in her care, she was unhappy with the live-in job. The parents created a tense environment, and she lacked the assertiveness to stand up to their petty, controlling attitude.

Nevertheless, Hansen acquired valuable experience that later helped her take care of the kids of movie star Debra Winger, rock star Pat Benatar and TV stars Rhea Perlman and Danny DeVito. She discussed all aspects, good and bad, of being a nanny. There is more to it than meets the eye, regardless of whether the children are offspring of wealthy celebrities. Childcare seems to be an undervalued job in our society.

Little Princes

The Book of the Week is “Little Princes” by Conor Grennan, published in 2010. This the story of a global aid worker who changed many lives for the better over the course of three years.

Initially, Grennan volunteered to be, in essence, a surrogate parent for a couple of months in Nepal in late 2004 at an orphanage, whose name in English is “Little Princes.” However, the children were not truly orphans. Months or years before, a child trafficker had told their parents, living in poverty-stricken rural villages, that if they gave him a lot of money– in some cases, their life savings–  that their children would be fed and clothed well and get an education. Instead, the trafficker sold them into domestic servitude in private homes. Those lucky children had been rescued by a pitifully incomplete patchwork of international child-services organizations or a government official in Kathmandu. “In Nepal, there were no safety nets, no system where all children were cared for in an orderly manner.”

Grennan fell in love with the children at Little Princes, and they, him. He thus returned to be with them after a year’s interlude. He learned of a group that ran homes in Kathmandu, and visited with kids there, too. He, with a fellow volunteer, had a dream to form an organization to have rescued children come to live in their own children’s home.

After the decade-long civil war between the Nepalese monarchy and the Maoists ended, Grennan’s goal became to find the children’s parents and reunite them. In prior years, the Maoists had occupied villages and had been ruthless with people associated with aid organizations. A weeks-long expedition taken on foot in the high-altitude mountains to find the parents, was already fraught with the dangers of death by a fall, illness, marauders, and snow, and even in this day and age– the absence of communications devices (!)

Grennan encountered a traumatic situation, of which he knew not, how many of its like there were. While on an expedition like the one described above, he found out from a postal service worker that the parents of a fourteen-year old kid in a home were alive and well. At some point in the past, the kid had been given their death certificates. Grennan realized the certificates were forged. “Here was a boy who had grown up believing that his entire family was dead… I was struck by how viciously the civil war had torn this country apart.”

Once Grennan started having success reuniting children and parents, the latter were overjoyed to see the former again. “But when they learned that their child was being well taken care of, they were suddenly reluctant to take him or her home. Nepal is a terribly poor country; it is a challenge to support a family.”

Read the book to learn more about the author’s trials, tribulations and triumphs, which include a romantic subplot.

The Deserter’s Tale

The Book of the Week is “The Deserter’s Tale” by Joshua Key and Lawrence Hill, published in 2007. This is the intense story of Joshua Key, who was assigned to an outfit of the U.S. Army that he claims committed war crimes in Iraq.

Finding himself in a financially desperate situation with a growing family, Key decided to join the army. A promise was made to him that he would stay stateside. Instead, after training, he was sent to Iraq early on in the Second Gulf War. When posted in Ramadi, his unit was ordered to raid homes of civilians to search for contraband, weapons and signs of terrorists or terrorist activity, but never found any. He writes that all Iraqi males five feet or taller, regardless of age, were detained by his fellow soldiers. He was never told by his commanding officer where they were taken or what happened to them. The females were terrorized by the unnecessarily rough treatment of the males at the hands of the American soldiers. Not only did the soldiers use scare tactics, but they arbitrarily looted and then trashed the civilians’ residences.

Key says he participated in the attacks, but did the minimal damage he could, while still obeying orders. He writes, “My own moral judgement was disintegrating under the pressure of being a soldier, feeling vulnerable, and having no clear enemy to kill in Iraq. We were encouraged to beat up on the enemy… Because we were fearful, sleep-deprived, and jacked up on caffeine, adrenaline, and testosterone, and because our officers constantly reminded us that all Iraqis were our enemies, civilians included, it was tempting to steal, no big deal to punch, and easy to kill… I witnessed numerous incidents of needless brutality and murders of civilians.”

Read the book to learn what transpired when the situation became intolerable for Key.

The Tennis Partner

The Book of the Week is “The Tennis Partner” by Abraham Verghese, published in 1999.  This is the autobiographical account of the relationship between a medical professor (the author) and an intern at a teaching hospital in the United States.  The two play tennis against each other.  At the time, they are each going through traumatic personal problems; the professor, the aftermath of a failed marriage that produced two sons, and the intern, a struggle to beat drug addiction.  Verghese deftly describes these in engaging detail, throws in his perception of the playing styles of various professional tennis players, and recounts some interesting medical cases.

The Vineyard

The Book of the Week is “The Vineyard” by Louisa Thomas Hargrave, published in 2003.  It is a memoir about the first wine-grape farmers on Long Island in New York State.

In the early 1970’s, Louisa and her then-husband, Alex, wanted to grow grapes to make wine to sell.  “I [Louisa] decided that having a vineyard wouldn’t take much time, so I enrolled in chemistry and calculus courses at the University of Rochester while we scouted for vineyard property.”  They thought they would be able to spend more time with the children they planned to have, if they worked in the same place where they resided.  Running a winery seemed to fit the bill.  The endeavor turned out to be more difficult than they imagined.  The Hargraves had never managed a vineyard before, let alone any business, but prior to plunging in, they “did their homework” the best they could, were passionate about wine and were willing to work hard.

They purchased a plot in Cutchogue on the North Fork of Long Island.  Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay were the first grape varieties they planted.  Fortunately for them, the soil was compatible with these high-quality varieties.  They released their first wine in July 1977, from fruit picked in 1975, aged in barrels.

Louisa provides a detailed account of the numerous risks grape farmers and wine makers face; the birds, bugs and weather, to name a few. She also recounts problems her family encountered, including educating their daughter and son and dealing with legal tangles concerning their business.   One particularly stressful episode involved fighting an extortion attempt by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

Despite all the hardships, the Hagraves nurtured a successful vineyard because they possessed and/or acquired the passion, courage, focus, skills, talents and luck in sufficient amounts.