Monthly Archives: April 2012

The Power of Half, Kevin Salwen and Hannah Salwen

I think I can safely say that this is a life changing kind of book. The kind that really sticks in your brain and makes you think and then think again and then reconsider every aspect of your little life and try to realign your actions and reactions with the new sense of reality that you suddenly have.

This book is not a literary masterpiece. It cannot compare with Dickens or Woolf or Twain or Steinbeck. What it is, is an inspirational revelation, a glimpse into the true power of one, the intense possibility that one individual can indeed change the world.

I loved the structure of this book. Kevin, the father, is the main author. The book is narrated from his perspective and is filled with his insights into the world and indeed into his family and their journey. He is an ex-journalist and the story is beautifully told and littered with quotes from the inspirational masters. Kevin’s role in this story is really as a back-seat driver, or an observer. The adventures are in fact triggered and driven by Kevin’s daughter, Hannah, and she is the co-author of this book. In fact, many of the chapters feature Hannah’s experiences or insights as a separate section, clearly aimed at the younger readers or for parents to gain some insights into what their children might be thinking or what might trigger their interest. The fact that the book is narrated from these two different perspectives add to the depth of the reading experience and makes it a wonderful, rounded insight into this family’s experiences throughout this journey.

The essence of the is story is found in Kevin’s realisation that their lives are governed by the ‘New Normal’.

“Joan and I simply called it ‘the treadmill’. We created a lifestyle; then, just to keep up, we had to stay in motion. And like the automated treadmill, it had a builtin mechanism to keep it going. We’d never dreamed of going from power windows back to hand-cranked ones or leather seats to cloth. In fact, I couldn’t remember any time we had done that in any facet of our lives – cars, houses, electronics, or musical instruments. Better, nicer, more became the New Normal.”

It is something that most of us can relate to – the underlying pressure to keep up with the Joneses, those neighbours of our own imagining. For the Salwen Family it is the struggle to get out of this trap that distinguishes them from other families. And, the essence of the success of their endeavours is that they decide not to be immobilised by the enormity and vastness of the problems facing the world and by their inability to make a huge difference to a large number of people. Rather, they are empowered by the fact that everything that they do for others helps. They follow the philosophy of Edmund Burke: ‘Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.’ As Salwen narrates in this book:

“There are 6 Billions people in this world, and you are one person. It’s easy to think, ‘How much of a difference can I really make?’ The short answer is, a lot. I love the quote from Marian Wright Edelman, the children’s rights advocate: ‘We must not, in trying to think about how we can make a big difference, ignore the small daily differences we can make which, over time, add up to big differences that we often cannot foresee.'”

The way that this family goes about making change is by empowering their children – “If you want children to keep their feet on the ground, put some responsibility on their shoulders.” In fact, they make their children equal partners in all the decisions that they make from selling their house and giving away half of its value to where and who they give the money to and how it is used. The key to their success is the involvement of the whole family.

The family’s philosophy is summarised by a quote from Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., explaining how he wanted to be remembered:

“‘Every now and then I think about my own death, and I think about my own funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize. Tell them not to mention that i have three or four hundred other awards. I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody … Say that I was a drum major for justice … for peace … for righteousness … I just want to leave a committed life behind.'”

The value of the journey that the Salwen family experience cannot be quantified. It is, indeed, priceless:

“To put it in a literary context, we had come of age. We had coalesced as a family, brought together by a mission that really mattere. Maybe it was a bit premature to claim victory, but sitting there at the dinner table in Accra, Ghana, I believed we had found our family legend. We knew what we wanted to stand for.”

To learn more about this incredibly inspiring family, visit their website.

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The Angel’s Game, Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind was possibly one of the best books that I have ever read. I think that it was the concept of the Cemetery of Books which got me … an awesome notion for someone who loves the smell and sense of miles of books. In my mind it is one of the ephemeral books which lingers for a long time after the last page is done and dusted, as though it occupies the very air that we breathe. I remember distinctly being drawn into the Cemetery of Books and wanting to stay there myself, wanting to know exactly the flavour of such a place, how it resonated within one’s spirit and captured one’s imagination so wholly. I was transfixed by the books. 

So, it was with quick excitement that I bought The Angel’s Game, quite some time ago I must confess and it has been sitting patiently on that long shelf of TBR books that occupies half my house. In part I was afraid to read this book because I didn’t want to destroy my previous conception of Zafon’s genius. I was loathe to be disappointed. I know that I have reviewed another book by Zafon but that was YA fiction and occupies a different space for me so there was little chance of being disappointed there – and indeed, I wasn’t in that example.

Thus it was that I stumbled across The Angel’s Game while moving house and decided that it was time to bite the proverbial bullet and read the book and just surrender myself to the possibility of disappointment.

One of the things that I think classifies this author as a master is his ability to create an entire world that teeters on fantasy. It is hard to tell what is real in Zafon’s writing and what is lost in the mist of his imagination. There is no doubt that The Angel’s Game meets this expectation for there are several cloudy worlds mingling in this tome. I loved the versions of reality that Zafon created here and I found each of them intriguing for different reasons… I also enjoyed the different narrative strands and the way that they hung with possibility sometimes realised and sometimes not.

On one level this book grabbed me at the outset:

“A writer never forgets the first time he accepted a few coins or a word of praise in exchange for a story. He will never forget the sweet poison of vanity in his blood, and the belief that, if he succeeds in not letting anyone discover his lack of talent, the dream of literature will provide him with a roof over his head, a hot meal at the end of the day, and what he covets most: his name printed on a miserable piece of paper that surely will outlive him.”

It seems that this is Zafon’s primary interest, the power of words, of their imprint on paper and how that paper lingers – the Cemetery of Books, it finds its home here too. “A writer is condemned to remember that moment, because from then on he is doomed and his soul has a price.” I was intrigued by this character that lead the book’s opening. He was nicely rounded and seemed to leap from the pages, his passion and pain so entirely captivating that I found myself drawn into his world. The first part of the novel continued in this fashion – ACT ONE: City of the Damned.

As we travel through David Martin’s world we meet a host of other characters, the bookseller and his son, the writer, the illusive editor Andreas Corelli and the essential love interest, Cristina. Some of these characters are more beautifully developed than others and perhaps this is par for the course in a novel which covers so many different genres – history, fantasy, epic love story, mystery, thriller … Unfortunately, at some point I was lost by the intermingling of these different elements and I found myself struggling to read the second part of this book. I can’t seem to pinpoint exactly what element led me astray … at times I didn’t really care about Martin and his miseries and I think that in order for one to fall for a book one has to feel some sort of commitment to the protagonist, or to another character. I wanted Martin to have more spine, to be substantial perhaps. When he finally did show himself to be somewhat heroic it was too late and thus I didn’t cry for him when his loved one disappeared under the ice … I think at that moment I was simply too confused by the way that the novel’s structure seemed to disintegrate or maybe vanish.

I still enjoyed the book and I was very taken with its ending, confronting as it was. Not quite The Shadow of the Wind … but not too disappointing either!

A Thousand Sisters: My Journey into The Worst Place on Earth to Be a Woman

Off the bat I have to state that Lisa Shannon has accomplished something very heroic in her life and she should be commended for her strength of spirit and her courage in standing up for a cause in which she believed and for trying to be the voice for so many who remain unheard.

This is a difficult book to discuss. On one hand it raises the awareness of the plight of women in the Congo and indeed of the overall horror of the situation there for those who suffer it daily. In this vein it is a good book because it sets out to inform and I think that it does so quite competently. I loved the fact that Shannon interspersed her photographs with the various threads of narrative. This made it all very real and added an artistic quality to a text that would (for many reasons) have been quite difficult to read. I was also very moved by the memorial wall which the author has included at the end of the book and in some ways, I think this is perhaps the very strength of Shannon’s vision and the power of her commitment to these women and their stories.

Where I found this book challenging was that at times I couldn’t help but feel that Shannon was talking for these women, instead of allowing them to speak for themselves. I am not sure how she could have done things in any other way, but I there were many moments where I found myself uncomfortable in her white, western, privileged shoes as she tried to coax various stories out of the many women she interviewed. The way she was steering them into a particular narrative or point of view in order to fit with what she felt people in America needed to hear left me feeling empty and greatly dis-eased by the presumptions that are inherent in this type of positioning.

In a strange way it reminds me of my response to the book I, Safiya – a brilliant autobiography written by someone who does not have a voice for writing. The substance was so awe-inspiring, yet the narrative just let me down. And I felt disgusted with my judgemental self for not loving I, Safiya because it was so clearly an inspiration that this woman managed to tell her story and who was I to say that her voice didn’t meet my expectations? Yet I did. (Shrink, cringe). I passed my White, Western, educated, English hand over I, Safiya in dismay and I find myself quivering to do the same with this book (although for slightly different reasons).

Woe are the women of Congo – I can’t begin to imagine the pain and sorrow of any peoples who have to endure the type of suffering that A Thousand Sisters describes. But, how heroic that these women go on! How incredible that they dress in bright colours and dance and rejoice, that they choose life in the midst of this hardship and horror! I can’t help but feel that Shannon failed to grasp this miracle, and that she was disappointed that the women she encountered were not more tortured so that they could better meet with her expectations or perhaps soothe her troubled soul which was reeling from her own sorrows.

I have no doubt that Shannon’s intentions in writing this book were only pure and that it is my own inadequacies and post-colonial conscience speaking tongues of judgement here. I definitely recommend reading this book if only to learn more about what has occurred in the Congo. I followed many of the links that Shannon provided and found the information there heart-wrenching. I am certainly better educated about the Congo and will look out for more books about the plgi

A Tiger in Eden, Chris Flynn

This book came courtesy of the good folk at textpublishing and I have to say that off the bat it wasn’t something that would normally attract my reading attention. On the surface, this book traces the journey of an Irish man wanted for ‘things’ he did back in Ireland. To survive, he has travelled to Thailand where he is living an idyllic but tortured existence romping from beach to beach and woman to woman.

But that is just one element of this story, and a sometimes superfluous one at that.

What this book is really about is a man’s struggle to negotiate the minefield of his past, to learn to accept responsibility for actions that he chose to take and then to be able to move forward and actually know and like himself in his truest form. For me, it was this that was at the core of this novel.

I am still unsure whether or not Flynn has actually managed to pull off this challenging weave of Irish rebel replete with ‘No Surrender’ tattoo and soul-searching individual perched in the strange embrace of a monk’s meditation retreat. I agree with what Rob Minshall at the ABC Weekend Bookworm has noted:

… if anything, and considering his supposedly violent past and bigoted beliefs, Billy’s character is a little too sensitive. An Australian girl composing songs on the beach moves him to tears at one stage of the novel, he falls in love awfully quickly, he enjoys a good book and, considering his years as a sectarian street fighter, he’s terribly perceptive about cultural differences.

I do think that the ending came together too easily and that has let the book down a bit. I wanted more than just a sweet happy sunset. It didn’t seem to do the subtext of this novel justice.

What I do know is that I read this book and enjoyed it, it made me think about people I would not have otherwise thought about, in a way that I definitely would never have considered appropriate for their stereotype. I warmed to this different approach and in this way, the book was, for me, successful.

“You think I don’t know what the world’s like sure I seen more than most men could stand and I done things I’m not proud of … I done enough bad shit in my life and I need to get myself sorted out before it’s too late, maybe it is already maybe I’m just kidding myself on but I got nothing left no more enthusiasm for nothing I’ve just got to stop and face up to the world before it crushes me like the f*cking worthless bug that I am.”

I couldn’t help but like Billy and I liked him even more when I read this interview with Flynn which I think adds enormously to the book.

This is definitely worth a read and I will be watching out for more from this debut author.