Category Archives: Inspirational Literature

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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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

Holy Woman, Sara Yocheved Rigler

Wow, what a read, what a book, what a woman. Boy do I feel small and worthless in comparison!!

A couple of things that this book has taught me:

1. Sara Yocheved Rigler is a very insightful woman and is definitely someone I will watch out for in the future. I have already ordered several of her other publications and have taken the time to listen to some of her talks on line (torahanytime.com) and to read some of her contribution to the AISH.com website. She has amazing insight and in my short exposure to her writing I feel as though I have learned a great many things.

2. Rebbetzin Kramer was one hell of a woman. Seriously. I don’t think I can imagine someone being so humble and giving and generous, living without so much and feeling so blessed all at the same time. It’s beyond me. On one level reading about this incredible woman (holocaust survivor, barren, poor) made me feel quite selfish and uncaring. I definitely don’t give enough – of myself, of my money, my time. Who does? From Rigler’s perspective, Rebbetzin Kramer did!

But, at the same time I learned that every small thing that you do to help someone else is priceless. Rebbetzin Kramer lived her life so wholly to make other people grow and feel worthy that she shone, despite her poverty and the various sorrows that her life brought to her. She did it with grace and faith, with commitment and love. No act of charity or kindness was beyond her or too trivial and she prided herself in knowing that she made even a slight difference in the lives of the people that she helped.

I am never going to be a Rebbetzin Kramer, not even close. I don’t see myself fostering a troop of mentally challenged children who need full time care. I don’t see myself going without even the most basic amenities (like electricity and running water) in order to provide for someone else. I can’t imagine that I would be satisfied with my husband travelling for months at a time to raise thousands of dollars to help those less fortunate (who could possibly be less fortunate?).

But, what I can do, is realise the value of perspective. Rebbetzin Kramer didn’t see herself as lacking or going without. She saw herself as blessed because she could help so many people in so many different ways. It is this that we should all strive to emulate – the ability to appreciate that even the most simply of things can transform another’s life.

So, take the time to smile at a stranger, to stop and wonder at all that we have even though there might be so much more that we want. This is the lesson that Rebbetzin Kramer brings us.

Out of the Depths, Israel Meir Lau

This is one of those special books that you want to read slowly in order to savour every word and every part of the story.

There is no doubt that Rabbi Israel Meir Lau’s life is in itself miraculous. He was one of the youngest survivors of Buchenwald Camp, the descendent of an uninterrupted line of 38 generations of Rabbis and against all odds, he himself became a Rabbi, eventually becoming Chief Rabbi of Israel. A startling story.

What makes this book so special is that Lau has told his story with tenderness and awe, and while there are moments where readers will have to pause in order to recover their composure, as a whole this autobiography tells of the wonderful capacity of the human spirit to survive, of the value of connections with others and the intensity of the faith in the Divine. I was struck by Lau’s commitment to learning and the way that he navigated through so many lonely obstacles because he believed in continuing his father’s legacy. The enormous empathy that he gained as a result of his experiences is clear – especially when he recounts his relationship with the late King Hussein.

There were many stellar moments in this book and I have chosen only one to encompass Lau’s personality and life experiences. Lau gives this speech at French convalescence home where he and his brother, Naphtali, went after Buchenwald was liberated. The event occurs when a group of people come to visit the orphans staying there, and amongst them is an adult survivor who wants to address them. All he manages to say are “only three words in  Yiddish: ‘Kinder, taiyereh kinder …’ (Children, dear children)” before he bursts into tears. Lau’s response to this scene is recorded below:

“If you will allow me, I would like to say a few words on behalf of my friends. We would like to thank you. Not to thank you for coming, because we did not want this visit. Not to thank you for the gifts, because we do not want them. We want to thank you for the greatest gift of all, which we received from you just a few minutes ago, and that is the ability to cry. When they took my father and mother, my eyes were dry. When they beat me mercilessly with their clubs, I bit my lips, but I didn’t cry. I haven’t cried for years, nor have I laughed. We starved, we froze, and bled, but we didn’t cry. For the past few months, before and since the liberation, I have had the feeling that I am not a normal person, nor will I ever be. That I have no heart. That if I can’t cry when I am supposed to, I must have a stone in my chest instead of a human heart. But not any more. Just now I cried freely. And I say to you, that whoever can cry today, can laugh tomorrow, and he is a mensch, a human being. For this I thank you.”

*

While this book has left an indelible impression on me for many reasons, there were several moments where I felt uncomfortable with the way that Lau was seeming to give himself accolades – this was most obvious when he gave an account of his position as Chief Rabbi and all the people he met and things that he did. Compared to the tone and nature of the early Lau, as told in this narrative, this part of the text rang hollow for me …

Nonetheless, I was riveted to the end and my overall feeling is that here is a man worth listening to:

“Moshe Chaim is the first candle in the private Hannukah menorah I have been privileged to create. My wife is the base of that menorah, from which the candles, our eight children, went out into the world and I am the gabbai, whose role is to help those candles that they will spread their light and proclaim, each in a special way, the miracle of the victory of eternal Israel.”

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua

I first stumbled across this controversial book in the Wall Street Journal where an extract published caused furious and frenzied responses from a wide spectrum of the community, both local and global. The original publication depicted Chua as somewhat of a demon, extreme, manipulative and, in all honesty, quite vile. She was described as terrorizing her children, forcing them to perform to a strict schedule of tasks, limiting their interaction with their peers and preventing them from engaging in anything that might be deemed ‘fun’. Chua herself confesses that she is “not good at enjoying life”, this is apparently not one of her “strengths”. For Chua, childhood was “a training period, a time to build character and invest for the future.”

I was intrigued. It was hard not to be. Chua’s position – that Chinese mothers are superior to their Western counterparts – was so outside of our expectations of political correctness and accepted social ettiquette. How could one not read this book?

As one might expect, the Post sensationalized Chua’s book, selecting the most vitriolic segments to create its extract, probably hoping to inspire debate. And her response to the uproar parallels the disclaimer with which she starts her book:

“This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising their kids than Western ones.

But instead, it’s about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old.”

What Chua’s book is actually about is her own journey through parenting her two, very different children. It is about an extraordinarily driven woman who seemingly managed to balance marriage, children and a demanding academic role and still be apparently successful.

But Chua’s message is clear: “All decent parents want to do what’s best for their children. The Chinese just have a totally different idea of how to do that.” Chua goes on to detail what she perceives as some of the greatest differences between Chinese and Western parents and parenting:

“Western parents try to respect their children’s individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits, and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.”

And I have to confess that this gave me pause to think about my own parenting style – how often do we pander to our children, concerned that we might offend them, desperate to enable them to lead a soft and easy life and certain that the way to do this is to bring them dinner while they sit in front of the television and warm their milk just so in the evenings.

It is almost impossible not to like Chua – she is bright, devoted and respected. She is also reasonably honest about herself, confessing her inability to have fun and painfully detailing how she failed with her younger daughter, Lulu. However, this does not stop readers from wanting to shake her and make her refocus! Interestingly, the urge to bring the author to her senses is consumed by Katrin’s – Chua’s sister – battle with cancer which neatly distracts readers, allowing them to empathise with Chua on a totally different plane.

But, there is a resounding and subtle sadness to this book. Despite Chua’s convictions, she still has doubts, is still uncertain about her choices and her parenting style:

“Happiness is not a concept I tend to dwell on. Chinese parenting does not address happiness. This has always worried me. When I see the piano – and violin – induced calluses on my daughters’ fingertips, or the teeth marks on the piano, I’m sometimes seized with doubt.

But here’s the thing. When I look around at all the Western families that fall apart … I have a hard time believing that Western parenting does a better job with happiness.”

Perhaps, for Chua, the lesson is to decide what parenting is actually about: is it predominantly concerned with creating “happy” little people or is it more about molding character and determining futures. This book doesn’t provide any answers. It does, however, present a fantastic read filled with thought provoking ideas.

A Friend Like Henry

This is one of those books that resonates for a long time. There are many reasons for this, the one which stood out for me was the dedication and commitment of these parents to the well being and integration of their children. I was startled by the extent of their struggle to find a space and a place for their son socially, academically and psychologically. The isolation of their struggle to mainstream him was simply disturbing. For this reason alone, this book is worth reading.

In literary terms, it is one of those memoirs that is actually well crafted and a pleasure to read. Gardner clearly has a way with words and she has managed to capture so many elements in this narrative that the reader is captivated by her voice. Through her prose we appreciate so many aspects of her life: her battle to fall pregnant, the challenges she faced with her son and her husband and the people around her, her amazing tower of strength mother and of course, the beauty of Henry, the true hero of this book.

While, at times I felt as though this book was too pointedly saying thank you to all those people who helped the Gardners on their journey, I found myself forgiving Gardner for this and appreciating her need to publicly acknowledge people.

One of the things which will stay with me for a long time to come is the way in which the officials (medical and social) failed to really appreciate this mother’s  struggle and in fact presented more obstacles than aids. As a consequence, while this book recounts Nuala’s personal story, it is also a testimony to the fact that one has to stand up for oneself, that you are your best advocate and that when you believe in something you have to ensure that nothing gets in your way.

This family’s tenacity of spirit, their will to succeed, their awe-inspiring determination and their love for each other are all inspiring. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to be moved.

An interesting article for The Sunday Times.

Fascinating YouTube of Henry and Dale.

The Horse Boy

The Horse Boy by Rupert Isaacson

This is one of those magnificently written books that every parent should read. It is heartfelt, honest and gripping. The author’s commitment to his son is inspiring and his quest to find peace for his son’s dysfunctional behaviour is admirable – if not a bit extreme. There were a few anomalies though – specifically, his wife’s voice is largely absent and on some levels this is quite disconcerting. It was hard to ascertain whether her absence was simply a consequence of the dominance of his voice or whether she was indeed absent from this child’s life. Alternatively, perhaps she was against Rupert’s desire to take this journey … It is impossible to know. One thing that we do know is that she is a strong woman who is prepared to put aside her own fears and hesitations for the greater good of her family.

Nonetheless, the characters that this family encounters along their journey are fascinating and bring colour to what would otherwise be a very intense account. Finally, the author’s revelation toward the end of the novel that his son does not have to be “cured”, his autism “removed”, and that the family’s focus should be on enabling him (and in turn, them) to live a high functioning life, is wonderfully fresh and gives hope to all those people who have suffered a similar experience. An outstanding book. Well worth the rewarding read.

To buy the book:
http://www.bookdepository.co.uk/book/9780141033631/?a_aid=Justinesaidman

As an aside, this is one of those books that is worth researching further. Some of the following links are fascinating!

“Healing Autism with Horses”, http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/04/14/healing-autism-with-horses/

“A Gallop Toward Hope”, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/15/books/15horse.html?_r=1

“Autism Therapy on Horseback”, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b7GHzselNmA

You can also view the trailor for the film: http://www.zeitgeistfilms.com/displaytrailer.php?directoryname=horseboy&size=low&extension=avi