Misc

A Guided Tour Through the Museum of Communism by Slavenka Drakulic

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Nov 162012
 

In her book, A Guided Tour Through the Museum of Communism, Slavenka Drakulic uses small animals to tell the reader about the realities of life under the Soviet Union.  Drakulic, who was born in occupied Croatia, has written extensively about Communism and life in the USSR, and has also published other books like this one, which use fiction to tell about the realities of life under an oppressive regime.
In this book, your guides include a mouse, a parrot, a bear, a cat, a mole, a pig, a dog, and a raven.  Each of these animals tells a different story, with the mouse living in a history classroom and the talking parrot belonging to a brutal Marshal from now-divided Yugoslavia.  Using animals to tell about the horror and banality of the USSR seems silly, but the stories that are told by the animal narrators really serve to bring to light many of the facets of the USSR and the countries that came out of it in a way that people from the West in general, and the United States in particular,  might not have previously thought about.

Koki, the parrot, tells the reader “in order to impress them even more, he lived in the former king’s palace in Belgrade.  A Communist revolutionary living in a palace; that is what I call not only stylish but smart.  After all, his people were used to being ruled in a monarchic tradition, no?”  In this small space, the parrot helps the reader to understand the ways in which the rich and the leaders in the Soviet Union took the best and the most valuable possessions and properties for themselves, and how they justified that action.

In another section, the mouse asks the visitor to the museum to “think of how people lived — hundreds of millions of them — with a feeling that an interrogation room had been installed in their brains.  You could not see it, but it was there… The system of surveillance and self-control lives off fear and suspicion.  It is a simple and efficient psychological mechanism that turns people into liars — and, therefore, into accomplices of the regime”  This section gets at the the idea of self-censorship and how it worked in the Soviet Union in a rare and clear manner.

I would recommend this book to anyone who is looking for information about what really happened in the USSR.  It is fiction, so it won’t give you a timeline or a series of dry facts, but it will provide a window into the minds of the people of the Soviet Union and how they suffered under and survived Communism.

THE GIRLS OF ROOM 28

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Feb 222012
 
 THE GIRLS OF ROOM 28  is a memorial to the  girls who lived together in one room, in one building at the children’s camp at Theresienstadt, a transit camp a short ride from Prague. While this was not a death camp, many died there or left there by rail to their deaths in Auschwitz. This is a very  emotional telling of their lives in the ghetto and often how they arrived there at the hands of the Nazis. They were young, mostly 12-14 during their stay in Room 28. They were trying to grow up in these terrible times. Today fifteen or so of the women who survived meet yearly to remember and share the best of times they have had as survivors.The book is filled with resources: photos, journal entries, drawings, copies of documents. It is an amazing resource even beyond the tribute the materials pay to friendship and love.  In the beginning of  this book one of the survivors remembers what the young girls had promised each other as they were forced to leave Room 28:”On one of the first Sundays after the war we shall wait for each other under the Bell Tower in the Old Town Square in Prague.” This is what Flska and her companions had promised one another when they had to say goodbye in Theresienstadt. They reinforced their promise with words that resonated like an incantation and a secret password.You believe me, I believe you.
You know what I know.
Whatever may happen,
you won’t betray me,
I won’t betray you.These women carry all of the young girls with them, even today, until the last one is gone. Throughout their mutual experiences, they are bound to those who are no longer as well as  each other. Theirs is an covenant  that goes beyond space and time.

A  experience that binds these women and many others from the Children’s Home in Theresienstadt was the children’s production of “Brundibar”. On July 7, 1943 there was a transport of children from the Prague orphanage. After a performance of The Bartered Bride in their honor, Rafik Schachter and Rudolf Freudenfeld decided they would cast and perform the children’s opera Brundibar at Theresienstadt. This process was magical and as many children as possible took part in it. This is an opera of triumph, of good over evil. Young children won out over an evil adult. The first performance was on September 23, 1943 and there was an audience of over three hundred. It was magical and the performances continued weekly until the last performance in August 1944.
Visit  an excellent site on the opera here.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

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Feb 022012
 
  
  This 2005 novel is about the friendship between two Chinese women in mid-19th century rural China. I found it  wonderful to feel as if I was part of their world and totally accepted their view of life as my own. I decided to review this book since it has received much more attention now that it has  been adapted into a movie.
 Snow Flower and Lily are friends, but their friendship was not by chance. When they were only seven years old, a marriage broker arranged a contract in which they agreed to be friends for life. They did not live in the same town and Snow Flower came from a more prosperous family than Lily, but Snow Flower visited Lily often, and learned to do household chores as well as the complicated embroidery that all young Chinese girls did in preparation for their future marriages. Yes, both of these girls, as well as the other girls in their households had bound feet. The pain must have been awful. Yet, it was an accepted part of being a woman in those times, and mothers who wanted their daughters to marry well had to force their young girls to go through the agony.

 A woman’s world was completely different from the world of men. Their lives were that of isolation. In order to communicate, they actually had a secret written language. This language has been documented and did exist. It is the only known language in the world to have been developed exclusively by women for women. The two girls would write to each other in this language on a fan which they sent back and forth to each other. Both of them had hopes for a bright future.

As the girls grow up we share their experiences of marriage. They didn’t meet their husbands until the wedding day, and their function in their new households was only to bear sons. Mothers-in-law were usually hard, overbearing  taskmasters and were always critical of them. But if they were married to the eldest son, they would, one day, become a mother-in-law themselves. And so their lives were that of stoicism and acceptance. This was the only way for them to live.

Lily was fortunate to end up in a good marriage. She produced boy children, and, through the years, she and her husband got to know each other and accept each other. However, the person she was closest to in the world was Snow Flower and they communicated throughout their lives. In contrast, Snow Flower’s life was a harsh, terrible situation, I shudder to think of it. I am saddened even more when I think of the rift between them when they were in their thirties. Lily does something that she regrets for the rest of her life. The book, in fact, is told in the first person through the eyes of Lily, who lives on to old age.

The author, Lisa See, is part Chinese and has researched this novel impeccably. She even traveled to rural China and interviewed many people, including experts on the secret writing. Times have changed and Chinese women no longer bind their feet, but interviews with elderly women regarding this practice as well as marriage rituals and food preparation add the essential authenticities that are the basic building blocks of this book.

I enjoyed this book: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan  and although I know that it will appeal mostly to women, I know it would add to every one’s understanding of a culture that is no more, and a lifestyle which once defined China.

Made in the U.S.A

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Jan 202012
 
 In Spearfish, South Dakota, with their mother long dead, the McFee siblings teenage Lutie and her younger brother Fate live with three hundred pound Floy Satterfield; their runaway father’s former girlfriend. However, their lives take a spin when their guardian drops dead at the local Wal Mart. Lutie, who began shoplifting  when she was booted from the high school gymnastics team due to unfair influences, persuades her eleven year old brother to give up the TV shows and global warming because they have two choices: flee in Floy’s ancient car or allow the state to place them. They decide to find their  estranged dad whose last known address is Las Vegas in some dive hotel.
 In Las Vegas, they begin to learn nasty truths. Their father cannot be found. Fifteen year old Lutie obtains fake working papers and dead-end jobs so she and her brother have food and shelter of sorts. However, Luties choices seem to be taking them straight to the street sharks which include child molesters, rapists, drug addicts and other abusers. While Lutie heads down a terrifying trail Fate is spending his days in the public library. Where he learns there is someone watching out for them;former aerialist Juan Vargas “adopts” the pair as his redemption and takes them to his family in Oklahoma where they run the Vargas Brothers Circus. Juan carries guilt, but his grandma has love for all three that might help each find sanctuary if they reach out to her and one another.

 MADE IN THE U.S.A. is an interesting character driven tale that argues it takes a village to raise children. Readers will feel for the McFee sibs, who are neglected while their guardian lived and after she dies.These two children  make dangerous decisions  out of fear. What happens to Lutie in Vegas shows the real sinful underbelly of the city, Fate is faced with things no child should have to see. Billie Letts brings us face to face with what family really can be and some of the hard roads we travel to get there.

The Weird Sisters

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Jan 042012
 
 
  The Andreas family pulled me in.  A family of readers, they had books in all rooms; while most children fought over the television this family immersed themselves in books. Three sisters, each named for famous Shakespeare works; Rosalind,(Rose) Bianca(Bean) and Cordelia(Cordy). Professor Andreas chooses to express emotion by quoting the Bard, his obsession with Shakespeare is a dominant factor with the family and leaves the sisters feeling they have much to live up too.
   There are some heavy topics tackled by The Weird Sisters.  After living their own lives for the past few years the three sisters are all back under their parents roof, the main reason for this being their mothers illness. You quickly become aware each sister has their own agenda for escaping to their childhood home. All three  sisters are very individual characters with separate personality traits and flaws. As a reader I could relate to each of them. Each sister feels as though their other sisters are favoured more than them and better than them in some way because the reader gets to see all characters thoughts and perspectives.
  The way this book is narrated has left some confusion, some have thought it was the voice of Cordy but that is not the case. It is all three sisters in a first person narrative.  it does take some getting used to but with the concept of the book it is very well done.
  The Weird Sisters title draws on the fathers love of Shakespeare and is a reference to the three witches in Macbeth. The infamous quote “”Double,double, Toil and Trouble, parties burn and Nonsense bubble.””

MATCHED

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Dec 192011
 
Welcome to a world with no worries. A world where life’s major decisions are all made for you, who you love, where you work, even when you die. There are 100 songs, 100 poems,even films you can watch. Welcome to the future; The Society.In Ally Condie’s  first book, Matched brings us into this new world introducing us to Cassia on the eve of her Match banquet. The day the Society takes her data and determines who her optimal mate will be. Every thing in the society is based on control, and data they monitor every move you make, decide your meals, all for the optimal health of every person in the Society. Their explanation being that before we had access to too much information via technology.  So they took control and citizens of the Society now  reside  in cities spending their life knowing all major decisions will be made for them.Cassia has waited for this day, when she is matched at her banquet things seem to be clicking into place. Her match is her life long friend Xander. Most matches are not from the same province so it is considered highly unusual but very celebrated. Each person is given a micro chip containing information about there match. When Cassia gets home to look at her card Xanders face appears, then flickers and a different face appears. What in the world? She knows this face too.This sends Cassia reeling into a discovery that her world; the way she has grown up may not be as perfect as she thought. Torn between what society says and love wants. Where words are powerful and some things may feel safe, but you discover they are constricting and you want to break free.

I encourage many to delve into Cassia’s world in Matched and continue her journey in Condies sequel, Crossed.  Matched  brings the dystopian romance which will leave you at the edge of your seat for more!

The Help

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Dec 122011
 

 

 

THE HELP BY KATHRYN STOCKETT

Kathryn Stockett’s first novel; “The Help” is considered one of the years best. This is the story of a young white woman,Skeeter Phelan growing up in Jackson Mississippi in the 1960’s and the black maids, Aibileen and Minny who work for white families in the town. Aibileen is the older, wiser maid who loves the children she cares for, Minny is a younger, sassier maid who has trouble keeping work and struggles to support her own five children.

I personally enjoyed this novel, I like the way it was written from the perspective of these three different women. Skeeter is a woman who grew up with a  maid who she faithfully stayed in touch with while studying  journalism and literature at Ole Miss. Then the letters suddenly stop.She tries to find answers when she returns from school but without avail, so she stays busy with her friends Hilly Holbrook; head socialite and Elizabeth Leefolt who jumps at Hilly’s every whim.

In the beginning of the story Minny works for Holly Holbrook and her aging mother while, Aibileen has been working for Elizabeth Holbrook . After scandal which leads to Minny being fired and having no luck finding another family to work for. A new woman, Celia Foote enters the picture who the other “proper ladies” consider no good “white trash.” Aibileen helps Minny find employment with Celia, who attempts to keep it a secret from her husband. Many different relationships get tied up and messy, Skeeter is wanting to know what happened to her old maid,Constantine as well as working on her career in journalism. She finds a position at the Jackson local paper writing advice columns on house cleaning, something she herself has no knowledge of. With permission from Elizabeth Skeeter begins asking  Aibileen’s advice for her column and a slow tentative friendship develops. Which begins the enticing idea for a tell all book from the maids perspective of working for white women in Jackson Mississippi.Thus begins a life of sneaking around and betraying trusts to bring out these women’s stories.

This  story exposes the “what people think” ideals of 1960’s Mississippi. Hilly Holbrook was a representation of the opinion machine and gossip mill that “mattered” in segregated life. With misplaced courtship, sass or sympathy;a step across the imaginary color barrier an entire life could be made or ruined.

A well written novel set in a historical time, “The Help” is a wonderful look at the radicals of times long ago and how far we have come. Life held hardships and fear along with grace and goodness. Stockett captures both in this complex reality and I believe shows the invisible barriers we have crossed and how much we could have together by crossing the lines.