Monday, April 21, 2014
Yangzom Brauen, Across Many Mountains: A Tibetan Family’s Epic Journey from Oppression to Freedom (St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2011, 306 pages).
Also available for Nook and Kindle and as an audiobook.
Reviewed by Sue Dayton
Across Many Mountains is a memoir that spans the lives of three Tibetan women. The book is written by Yangzom Brauen and tells the story of her grandmother, her mother and herself. Yangzom’s grandmother, Kunsang Wangmo, grew up in Tibet and was a Buddhist nun; she was married to a monk. In the early 1950’s, because of the Chinese invasion of Tibet, Kunsang, her husband and their two young children began a treacherous hike across the Himalayas into India. During this long and cold journey her husband and their young son died.
Kunsang and her daughter Sonam lived in several Indian refugee camps over the years and faced much adversity. Much later a young Swiss man, Martin Brauen, befriended them. Sonam married Martin and along with Kunsang they relocated to Switzerland where the book’s author, Yangzom Brauen, was born. The book then follows Yangzom’s life and how she came to tell this story about her mother and grandmother.
This is a powerful story of courage, family, love, and fortitude in the face of unbelievable obstacles. It is also a story that helps the reader learn and gain understanding of Tibetan culture and customs. My daughter Kathy read this book and recommended it to me and I’m so glad she did!
Saturday, April 12, 2014
Jennifer Clement, Prayers for the Stolen (London & New York: Hogarth, 2014).
Reviewed by Wilda Morris
“A missing woman is just another leaf that goes down the gutter in a rainstorm,” according to a minor character in Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement. The narrator says, “Nobody did anything as stupid as calling the police” when a woman or young girl disappeared. “Calling the police was like inviting a scorpion into your house.” There would be no justice for missing or dead females anyway unless they were the favored wives or daughters of powerful drug lords or politicians.
Prayers for the Stolen centers around four young girls (Ladydi, Paula, Maria and Estefani) living in a mountain jungle in the Mexican state of Guerrero and their families. Their community has been cut in two by a major highway. The local school is open when the federal government finds a teacher willing to risk life on the mountain for a few months. There are few ways of making a living and supporting a family, so virtually all the men make their way across the border to the US. Some send home money, at least for a while, but many end up abandoning their families in Mexico and start new ones in the North. It is not surprising that the wives in Guerrero are torn between bitterness toward their husbands and dreams that they will return.
Add to these problems the shadow cast over the community by powerful drug traffickers who traffic in beautiful young women as well as heroin. When a daughter is born, the mothers announce to everyone, “Thank God, a boy has been born.” It is not surprising that Ladydi’s mother Rita, whose husband is in the US and no longer communicates with her, has three addictions (not counting anger and vengeance): alcohol, theft, and television—especially the History Channel. These are her only escapes from the hard-scrabble life on the mountain and fear for her daughters’ safety.
The heroine of this story of coming-of-age in the midst of social and economic chaos is Ladydi. Like quite a few other Mexican girls, she was named for Princes Diana—patron saint of wives of unfaithful men.
For several years, Rits dresses Ladydi in boys clothing and calls her “boy” as if that is her name. When Ladydi and her friends are too old for that ruse, their mothers get their hair cropped, darken their faces with charcoal and their teeth with markers—anything to make them look unattractive. They also dig holes in the ground big enough for their daughters to hide in if they see large black Cadillac Escalades coming up the mountain. “We were like rabbits that hid when there was a hungry stray dog in the field,” Ladydi says.
Rita tells her daughter that when a woman or girl disappears, she never returns and never writes a letter home. Very early in the book however, Ladydi’s friend Paula, known to be the most beautiful girl in the village, does come home a year after having been “stolen.” She is barefoot, has the words “Cannibal’s Baby” tattooed around her wrist, and has self-inflicted cigarette burns on her arm. She is in such a catatonic state that her mother cuddles her like an infant, gives her milk in a baby bottle, and feeds her Gerber baby food. As the book unfolds we learn some of what happed to Paula.
We also learn how Ladydi struggles to survive and thrive in this toxic environment, how it twists her life despite her courage and strength. We learn about Ladydi’s first love and small kindnesses that come from unexpected places. There are just enough unanswered questions to give me hope that there will be a sequel.
Sometimes when a book is published, someone will say, “Is this fiction or non-fiction? Is it a true story?” That is a fair question, but fiction is often truer than non-fiction. If you read the article on Guerrero in the on-line version of Britannica Encyclopedia, it will tell you about the history, geography and climate of that Mexican state. The Britannica does mention poverty, but it doesn’t mention emigration to the US although according to Wikipedia Guerrero ranks first among Mexican states in terms of immigration to the United States. A recent article in the Los Angeles Times says that Guerrero has the highest homicide rate in Mexico and the second highest rate of kidnapping. Collusion between politicians and narco-traffickers has been a part of the problem. I suggest that you will get a more accurate picture of what life is like for many families in Guerrero from Prayers for the Stolen than form the on-line Britannica Encyclopedia.
Clement grew up in Mexico and still lives there. She knows Mexican culture well.
If you click on Diane Rehm Interview with Jennifer Clement and then on “listen,” you can hear Diane Rehm discuss with Clement the years of research that went into this novel. Clement interviewed a number of women who were in jail as a result of having been stolen and forced into involvement with illegal activities. When she describes what it is like in the jail in Mexico City, she knows what she is talking about. When she describes Guerrero, she knows from personal experience how dangerous it is. She had to stop going there because of the risks.
Clement is a fine writer of both prose and poetry. Her prose style is sparse, both lyrical and tough. Her subject is horrific and suspenseful, but she manages to include enough humor to make the book readable. She is an expert at unexpected plot turns and unexpected metaphors. Sometimes her words take my breath away, as when she describes people gathered at the one place on the mountain where they could make and receive cell phones. Paula’s mother was there with the rest, hoping against hope that Paula would be able to call. Even Maria’s brother Mike, who had at least five cell phones, turned off his phones and the iPod that was almost always in his ears. “That day all anyone could hear was the silence of cell phones. That was it. It was the sound of Paula stolen.”
This may be the most important novel published in 2014. I highly recommend that you read it.
Tuesday, March 25, 2014
Shelley Emling, Marie Curie and Her Daughters: The Private Lives of Science’s First Family (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).
Also available on Nook and Kindle.
Reviewed by Yvonne Addis
"The year was 1921, and I was a lad of seven." So writes my father, Laird C. Addis, Sr. about his cherished meeting with two-time Nobel winner Madame Marie Curie in New York City, an experience that grew out of his connection with Mrs. William Brown Meloney, editor of The Delineator, a popular women's magazine of the era. As private secretary to "Missy" Meloney, my grandmother, Ruth Beard Addis, worked for a woman who had access to celebrated people all over the world.
As the story of the second act of M. Curie's life begins, Missy Meloney emerges as a central figure in the lives of Marie Curie and her daughters, as well. When Marie Curie became famous for her discovery of radium, Missy went to Paris to accompany Marie to America by steamer in 1921. During this celebrated visit, President Harding presented Marie with a gram of radium at the White House to take back to Paris for M. Curie's laboratory.
This book is an intimate portrait of the professional and private lives of the family of a legendary scientist - Marie, her husband, scientist Pierre Curie, her Nobel prize-winning chemist daughter Irene and her literary daughter, Eve. The book is dedicated to girls and women everywhere as they pursue study in the fields of math and science.
As a widowed mother of two, Marie struggled with sexism, physical and mental health challenges and the rejection of the French establishment because of her relationship with a married man. Marie, however, was determined to live her life as she saw fit and passed on her resilience to her daughters. I was particularly moved by Marie's lack of interest in fame or fortune. What she wanted for herself and her daughters was to have a simple family life and work that interested them.
In recommending this compelling biography of science's first family, I believe the family of Laird Addis, Sr. ~ and others ~ will find this account of Marie Curie and her daughters stretching their era's concept of the possibilities for women to be an interesting read.