Monday, September 29, 2008

I'm Not Scared by Niccolò Ammaniti

Another entry for Book Around the World, this time for Italy! My friend Aisling lent me this book - we always exchange books in the summer - and it turned out to be a gripping, tragic story.

The story is told from the point of view of nine-year-old Michele, a boy living with his sister and parents in a small village in Italy in 1978. It's a blisteringly hot summer and Michele and his friends bike around the hills, trying to stay out of the adults' way and have a good time. Unfortunately they make a discovery in an old abandoned barn that will change their lives forever.

It was certainly hard to put this book down once it got into the thick of things. The tension builds up as the ending approaches. Apparently it was also made into a movie. Finally, the novel bears a strong connection to many of the themes in Lord of the Flies. Not uplifting, but beautifully written.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - And Why, by Amanda Ripley

I received this book completely free in the mail through the program Read It Forward. I was excited to get it, because I had actually read a short review of it in Oprah magazine, and it sounded interesting. While I was reading it, it was the week of 9/11 and there was a lot in the news and on TV about those days. I saw the film United 93 and a National Geographic special on 9/11 at the time I was reading the book, so it all seemed incredibly topical to me, not to mention the fact that we had just returned from a visit to the US and had just been through all the international plane travel hullaballo. Who doesn't think about a disaster happening while travelling?

Amanda Ripley is a Time Magazine journalist and her book is excellently written and researched. In spite of its very serious subject matter I highly enjoyed it. Using examples and survivor stories from various disasters, accidents, and terrorist attacks, Ripley walks us through the different stages people go through when put in such a dire situation. Reactions ranging from denial, fear, resilience, panic, paralysis, and heroism are all explored.

Of course, what I was most interested in were Ripley's recommendations for those of us who might one day be in an unthinkable situation. The website for the book has more specific advice here, but two things she does mention in the book struck me:

- always read the safety card on every plane (all plane models are different) and be sure to locate the nearest exit as you board
- after checking into a hotel, take the stairs down from your room so you are familiar with a safe route out

And it is important to be aware of the normal psychological pitfalls that we are all liable to fall into as unexpected things happen, such as being overly optimistic or passive or sucumbing to group dynamics; by reading this book, you can make yourself more aware of what they are and hopefully keep yourself safe in future.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Mira Stout: One Thousand Chestnut Trees

I found this book at my library and it sounded intriguing, about an young American woman whose mother immigrated from South Korea and her search for her identity through her mother's memories of Korea during the war as well as during her own actual visit to family in South Korea in 1987. It is a fascinating story, although I only really got into it when she finally got to her grandmother and mother's stories in Korea, and then at the end, her own visit there.

This book will teach you a lot of facts about Korea's history but at the same time it is an incredibly moving story of a family being torn apart by war and repression, first by the Japanese and then through the events of the Korean War. Living abroad myself, I could relate to many of the author's thoughts and impressions on being multicultural, removed from your home country, feeling like an alien. Of course, for her, being half caucasian and half asian brought its own challenge:

Naïvely I had expected to discover an instant identity; to be clasped to the country's bosom and greeted like a returning prodigal daughter. Instead I drew stares of indifference, incredulity or sufferance. After all, I was an outsider. Being half-caste had the same effect in the East as in the West. Your face was subliminally unsettling to both races. Eyes brushed over you as if you did not quite count, you were an aberration, a blip that would be smoothed over by the next manifestly white or coloured face that came into view

Stout writes about the division of Korea, and the families that were split by it, in a way that makes it seem so tangible to those of us who cannot imagine having no news, no visits, no information whatsoever about our loved ones. I got as choked up as the main character did while she visited the demilitarized zone:

A strange pressure built up behind the lump in my throat, burning and pushing at my chest; a surge of grief so powerful that I knew it could not be mine alone, but an accumumated, collective grief. My mother's unclaimed loss lay within me, along with aunts', uncles', and grandparents' suffering, and the interwoven despair of myriad families similarly caught in this division.

While visiting Korea she briefly toys with the idea of staying there, learning the language and making a life there. She can appreciate the way the Koreans' lifestyle differs from what she has known in the United States:

I felt exhausted by being American; weathering a constant storm of revisionism and the accompanying babble of inflamed opinion; the abrasive worship of celebrity and riches; even the massive choice of junk foods in the supermarket was tiring...

The descriptions of life in Korea are detailed and fascinating, the cultural mishaps often amusing. An engaging story that allows the reader to learn a great deal about the country - the perfect kind of book for the Book Around the World Challenge!