Strength In What Remains

The Book of the Week is “Strength In What Remains” by Tracy Kidder, published 2009. This is the biography of a man named Deo who miraculously survived the genocidal violence that spilled over from Rwanda into Burundi in 1994-95.

Deo grew up in the latter nation, where his family, of the Tutsi tribe, did farming and herding in the mountains near Lake Tanganyika. In the 1970’s, the Catholic church owned and operated his one-room schoolhouse. His parents, who believed in education, could ill-afford the school tuition of one dollar. They were able to buy him a pencil but not a pen.

The Germans and later, Belgians (colonizers of Rwanda and Burundi) engendered hatred between the Hutus and Tutsi tribes.  In 1995 in Burundi, a two-month killing spree led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.

During that time, Deo was attending medical school in Bujumbura, Burundi’s capital, far from his home. He found himself in a traumatic and dire situation; traumatic in that he witnessed gruesome scenes, including those of deteriorating corpses of humans and cows lining the roadside, and dire, in that there were hostile soldiers everywhere, seeking out people who looked like Tutsis, pursuant to their facial features  (similar to the way Nazis sought out Jews during the Holocaust) and torturing and murdering them. Over the next decade, Deo was able to overcome his seemingly overwhelming difficulties and fulfill his dream.

Burundi’s people continued to suffer long after the violence was over. There was poor regard for human rights, especially among those injured in the tribal warfare who were indigent. (A lot of those lucky enough to survive, were rendered indigent by the tribal warfare). In the late 1990’s, hospitals had a special section for patients who could not pay their medical bills. They could not be discharged until they paid up, during which time they were given neither care nor food. Family and/or friends were expected to assist them. In addition, the bodies of deceased patients could not be released to their families unless the bills were paid.

This blogger found Deo’s story remarkable and suspenseful. However, she is giving the author the benefit of the doubt with regard to a few ambiguous passages in the book, attributing them to a bad editorial decision. The passages occur in the first half. In the middle, the author explains that over the course of two years, Deo told him his story, and I’m sure that the account of his escape suffered here and there from memory’s usual additions and subtractions, and there was no direct way to verify a lot of it…” This warning should come at the very beginning so that native New Yorkers will not question the geographic accuracy of the following passages, referred to above:

 

“On a day in his sophomore year he was riding the subway home from Columbia [University] and remembered that he hadn’t talked to Claude [in Burundi] for weeks. He got off at 125th Street.” [The story says that Deo was an undergraduate, attending classes at the Morningside Heights campus, not the medical school, and at the time, he was staying with people downtown]

“He figured he needed only twenty dollars a week for subways to and from Columbia, and sometimes he could save part of that by walking from lower Manhattan to the campus up in Harlem.” [same comment as above]

“Deo pushed the grocery cart down the sidewalks of Eighty-ninth Street. There were times when he felt crushed by the height and humiliated by the splendor of the buildings in this part of New York.” [West or East 89th Street? This is an important distinction to New Yorkers.]

 

Casting With A Fragile Thread

The Book of the Week is “Casting With A Fragile Thread” by Wendy Kann, published in 2007.  This is the engaging memoir of a native white-skinned Rhodesian.  She describes the familial and financial hardships she and her two sisters faced growing up with an absent mother and a risk-taking father, in a nation undergoing radical political change.  In 1980, Rhodesia came to be ruled by Robert Mugabe, a dark-skinned dictator, who allowed the country to be ravaged by his previously oppressed countrymen.  Read the book to learn how the author put her difficulties behind her.

Street Without A Name

The Book of the Week is “Street Without a Name” by Kapka Kassabova, published in 2009.  This autobiography describes the brand of Communism the author experienced as a child in 1970’s and 80’s Sofia, Bulgaria, and the Bulgarian historical events that interested her.

It was an unspoken, dirty little secret that the Communist lifestyle was actually inferior to that of the West. The Bulgarian government told the people that “Politburo comrades were heroes of the anti-Fascist resistance” and “the labor camps were for enemies of the people.”

The author’s mother branded Bulgaria’s leader and his cronies “idiots in brown suits.”  The State oversaw all academic, athletic and musical events, such as a contest called the Olympiads, in which grade-school kids competed in different subjects.  At ten years old, Kassabova was convinced that the West consisted of drug addicts, criminals, capitalists and dreadful child labor, based on one story:  Dickens’ “David Copperfield.”

Her parents both worked in the field of engineering, which placed the family in the middle class. Even so, the family lived in a third-class (out of four classes) concrete neighborhood where blocks were numbered. At the furniture store, there was a three or four-month waiting list for shelves and beds, that only afforded one the opportunity to physically fight for the desired items when the delivery truck arrived at the store in the wee hours.

One time, when the author was eleven, her father met someone from the Netherlands through his work, and invited his family to go “camping” with his own, on the outskirts of Sofia.  The Dutch visitors arrived in a recreational vehicle (RV), while the Bulgarian family had brought a hard-to-obtain, shabby military tent.  (As an aside, the cost of the RV equalled about twenty years’ worth of the author’s mother’s income.)  The Dutch were horrified by the disgusting state of the toilets, and the “rubbish and dogs everywhere.”  The Dutch, in addition to their sparkling new vehicle, brought Western goods, including Gummi Bears, chocolate biscuits, juice in little cartons, and one of ten varieties of potato grown in their home country.

The Kassabovas knew their standard of living under Communism was way overrated by their government but they could not leave Bulgaria– until the Berlin Wall fell.  Even then, they had to complete a ton of bureaucratic paperwork and wait years.  During such time, the author’s mother underwent a stay in the hospital, where there were newspapers instead of sheets, and soap and towels had to be provided by patients themselves.  The author’s father paid a large bribe to the head doctor so as to see the patient emerge from the hospital alive; during Bulgaria’s transition to capitalism, there was more corruption than before– which is saying a lot.

Read the book to learn more about the author’s perspective on her life and birth country.

Reckless Courage

The Book of the Week is “Reckless Courage” by William Fuller with Jack Haines, published in 2004.  This book focuses on a family living in Stavanger, Norway during World War II.  It also provides a bit of Norwegian history.  One of the family’s sons, Gunnar, a teenager, risked his life needlessly to irk the enemy in various little ways, out of anger against the German occupation of Norway.

Before getting to the heart of the story, this blogger would like to convey some information about the Norwegian education system (at least during WWII):  Students in a given class had the same teacher for their entire seven years in elementary school.  Almost all of the teachers were men, and teaching was a highly regarded profession.  Most schools started every morning with a Lutheran prayer and hymn.

When Russia invaded Finland in late 1939, Norway sympathized with Finland, as “Norwegians felt a special closeness with the Finns, who they saw as hardy like themselves, not soft and effete like the Danes and Swedes.”  October 1942 saw the Gestapo abducting Norwegian Jews– half of whom were assisted by various good-samaritan groups and individuals, in escaping to Sweden.

On more than one occasion, the aforementioned Gunnar, without being caught, was able to relieve German soldiers of their firearms when they had let down their guard.  There was a close call, however, when an officer at the hotel where Gunnar worked, threatened to search Gunnar’s house.  The teen was shaking in his shoes, as, “In his basement were a machine gun, three pistols, ammunition and a few grenades thrown in for good measure.”  Luckily, the officer did not follow through on the threat.

Read the book for more of Gunnar’s adventures and interesting thoughts on how the course of the war was changed by various incidents.

Colors of the Mountain

The Book of the Week is “Colors of the Mountain” by Da Chen.  This is the autobiography of someone growing up in China during the middle and later years of the Cultural Revolution under Communist dictator Mao Tse Tung.  Since Da, born in 1962, was the youngest of several brothers and sisters at a time when Mao was reversing China’s education policy toward one of competitive college-entrance exams, Da became his family’s only hope for a better life.

The siblings unfortunately, were doomed to a life of backbreaking toil on the farm, under Mao’s reign.  Da, on the other hand, was provided with the opportunity to take three days of the extremely extensive “regurgitation” exams.  He rose to the occasion, studying with his friend for hours and hours every day for months on end.

His friend, who smoked big, fat cigars, was a nonchalant sort under much less pressure. He could afford to goof off. For, the friend’s family owned a lucrative tobacco farm, and failing his exam would mean merely entering the family business, which was not such a bad consequence.  That is what happened to the friend.

Da’s hard work paid off.  He achieved the highest test scores in his region, an exceptional triumph, since he was from a rural area where students received test preparation inferior to that in urban areas.  He had heard that learning English was very important if one wanted to study abroad.  However, it was rumored to be very difficult for Chinese people to learn to pronounce English with an accent that was comprehensible to people in English-speaking countries.  But learning English was important for increasing one’s options for a better life. Da was treated to a tuition-free university education and learned English.  Read the book to learn how he fared thereafter.

Everything is Broken

The Book of the Week is “Everything is Broken” by Emma Larkin (an alias), published in 2010.  This book discusses the actions of the oppressive regime of Burma (aka Myanmar) with respect to Cyclone Nargis, which hit on May 2, 2008.

In addition to describing the nation’s violent history, the author also delves into the religious side of Burma, which includes an active monastic community.  Such community ended up on the losing side of an ugly dispute with soldiers in the summer of 2007.  There had also been a famous 1988 student uprising, which resulted in imprisonment of the dissidents.

Well over 100,000 people died in Cyclone Nargis, which did devastating damage to the Irrawaddy Delta.  Many lives could have been saved had the Burmese government– run by military generals and one general in particular– for almost a week, not refused disaster-relief workers entry into the country. The government also barred the media from the affected areas, blockading road and river access.

Human corpses and cattle clogged the waterways.  The one and only newspaper (a propaganda font) distributed in Burma, reported that people were eating fish and frogs they caught in the rivers, because they were not receiving foodstuffs from aid workers.  A famous comedian who publicly contradicted this account was summarily arrested and imprisoned, in accordance with the government’s practice of draconian censorship.

Although Burma has drawn harsh criticism from international civil rights groups, the generals do not care because their land contains precious minerals, teak and most luckily of all, natural gas and oil deposits.  Other countries of the world such as France, the U.S., Thailand and China are still eager to do business with it.

The author writes of the Burmese authorities, “The facts were already bloated with hindsight, overblown by rumor and sound bites from the more sensational elements of the international media and activist groups, and underplayed by the regime’s own meticulously archived propaganda machine.”  People in developed nations might feel this quote depicts their situation on a local level, even given the standard of living and freer political climate in their communities.

Nevertheless, there is a slight difference between this very common tale in third-world countries– oppressive military governments ruthlessly let people die in natural disasters, or persecute citizens at the slightest provocation; developed countries’ governments might impose education reforms that worsen conditions, or violate the civil rights of a particular group of people so that they lose their livelihoods, but violence and murder are extremely rare.

A book like this allows a reader to put things in perspective, and feel grateful that he or she does not live in Burma.

To Kill A Tiger

The Book of the Week is the memoir, “To Kill a Tiger” by Jid Lee, published in 2010.  The author describes the extreme hardships (“tigers”) she endured growing up, due to the culture of her generation in South Korea.

After WWII, North Korean dictator Syngman Rhee and South Korean dictator Kim Il Sung both conducted witchhunts to root out political dissidents, torturing and killing them.  Kim was aided by the U.S. in his oppressive endeavors. The author’s father engaged in anti-government, pro-socialist activities as a college student, and as a consequence, was:  expelled from a prestigious university, tortured, imprisoned and forced to accept a lowly position teaching instead of “selling out” to become a high government official. Yes, this happened in South Korea.

The education system was based on rote learning. The author, born in 1955, unfortunately had trouble with memorization, and therefore did poorly in school.  Her two older brothers tutored her extensively to help her pass the admissions test that allowed her to attend a decent high school.  However, she failed her college admissions test– two eight-hour exam days– twice, and had to settle for a second-tier college a year later than her peers.

Since she was female, she was expected to help her mother with all the household chores in addition to attending school and studying, which meant she labored sixteen hours a day starting in middle school.  In her male-dominated world, during her teenage years, stress and anger were relieved through abuse heaped upon her by her father, older brothers, grandmother and mother.  She in turn rebelliously fought back against her mother and was mean to her younger sister.

There was extreme pressure for both genders to attend prestigious schools but the educational elitism for females merely served the purpose of “marrying well.” After college graduation, the daughters were supposed to enter into marriages arranged by their fathers, and be good wives and mothers.   Read the book to learn what has become of the author.