Monday, September 29, 2008

The Devil Came on Horseback

The Devil Came on Horseback: Bearing Witness to the Genocide in Darfur
Brian Steidle
With Gretchen Steidle Wallace


Natasha has been hosting the Reading and Blogging for Darfur event at her blog this whole month. I wanted to actively read and watch a lot of videos this month but unfortunately couldn’t do as much as I wanted. Luckily, one of the books I had ordered got to me before the end of the month. So I sat down to read “The Devil Came on Horseback”. I had read Natasha’s review of this book over at her blog and that was one of the reasons I definitely wanted to read this one. And I am glad I did. Once again, thank you Natasha!
What is the best way to know more about everything happening in Darfur, you might wonder. Well, how about a book written by someone who was there, someone who interacted with both sides of the fight, someone who took pictures of everything happening there, someone who made notes of every incident he witnessed, etc etc?? You basically get what I am trying to say, right? There couldn’t be a better way to get to know about the happenings in Darfur than to read “The Devil Came on Horseback”.
Brain Steidle is a former United States Marine. He goes to Sudan for a year as an unarmed military observer for the African Union. His job was to go with his team and record the incidents he witnessed all over Sudan. After spending a relatively quiet few months in the Nuba Mountains, he requests a move to Darfur. His frustration at not being able to do anything to help better the situation in Darfur is obvious through the book. The helplessness he feels when he looks into the eyes of the poor villagers who think that he might just be able to help them is so palpable. But given his situation, Brian does the best he can in his own way. He records every incident, every conversation, every scene in the form of reports, photographs, letters to his sister Gretchen, audio notes, etc. And then, he wrote a book to convey the message to everyone else in the world. I think what he’s done is so commendable.
If you are expecting a dry, boring, documentary reporting mass killing, rape and other atrocities, you are soo wrong. The book is actually well written and very interesting. It is quite a page turner. Personally, I felt the first part of the book, before he goes to Darfur seemed kinda slow. But the minute he landed in Darfur, I couldn’t put the book down. I just had to read and read and read and grasp every word he had to say. Some of the things that he had to say, I already knew… Many other things shocked me. The images in the book were heart-wrenching and I would be lying if I said that the book hasn’t affected me.
The one thing that troubled me was his faith in the American Government. Throughout the book he keeps mentioning things to the effect that if the information actually got to the US government then they would immediately do something to better the situation in Darfur. Did he actually think the folks sitting here have no idea of what is happening in Darfur? Well, it is not just the US government. It is governments all over the world. Somehow, everyone has decided to ignore the happenings in Darfur. Atrocities committed against the tribes in Darfur are so inhuman and should never be permitted. It is disgusting how things like this are going on for years and years and no one seems to be doing anything about it!
It is hard to imagine that this book is actually a memoir- that events described here are not figments of imagination from a psychotically deranged brain. They are actual events appening in a different part of the world. People are starving, getting killed mercilessly, getting raped, being turned out of their homes right as I type this review. It is really hard to imagine that everything said in the book is true.
Brain’s job is to act as an unbiased recorder of the incidents he witnesses. But throughout the book, it is obvious that he has taken a side. I do not know if that is good or bad. I have no idea if the actual scenario is that clear cut. Is there actually a “good vs bad” situation in Darfur? I think that’s just not possible. I might be just na├»ve here. I have no idea about what I am talking. Is it THAT obvious that there is one side is right and one side is wrong? If the situation was that obvious, won’t something be done about it already?
On the whole, I would totally recommend this book to everyone. In fact, not just to people interested in knowing about what is happening in Darfur but to EVERYONE. I think it is important to be aware of things that are happening all around us.I know this has been made into a movie as well. So if are you not really a book person (Wait, then what are you doing in my blog??) then you should get yourself a copy of the dvd to watch!
Well, please feel free to leave your comments here. I would love to hear what you think about this. If you have also read this book, do send me a link to review and I’ll add it to this post.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress


I think this is my week of banned books/authors. I started with Taslima Nasrin’s Shame which is banned in Bangladesh. And then I moved on to this book by Dai Sijie, which I later read is banned in China! It was originally written in French and then in English. It has been translated in 25 languages but not in Chinese. After reading the book, I could understand why though. Now I am reading East/West by Salman Rushdie. The book in itself is not controversial… but we all know about the author!:) Well, it wasn’t planned I tell you. I just realized that when I started writing this review. Well, I realized this and then I went to Natasha’s blog to get the link of her review to add it to this post and guess what I saw? She had mentioned that Sept 27th to Oct 4th was Banned Book Week sponsored by American Library Association. Hmm.. maybe I should have just waited for that. I just read all the banned books I had!

Anyways, getting to the book now:

I knew I was going to pick this book up the minute I read the review on Natasha’s blog. The cover totally totally appealed to me… I don’t know why though. A simple pair of old shoes with quaint looking buckles. But there was something about the picture that made me feel that the book might be a good read and I wasn’t disappointed.

Balzac and the little Chinese Seamstress is a semi-autobiographical novel. Like most kids from educated middle class families, Dai was also sent to rural china for “Re-education”. This was during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. I guess during the revolution, schools and colleges were shut down and any child having intellectual parents was sent to the villages to live the life of peasants and learn from them. Similarly, in the book, the narrator and his friend Luo are sent to a village near a fictional mountain called “phoenix of the sky” for re-education. There, they meet a pretty little girl – the tailor’s daughter and hence, she is called the little seamstress. Luo and the little seamstress soon fall in love but it seem pretty obvious throughout the book that the narrator himself was in love with her though he never openly admits it. During this period, no one is allowed to read or own any other book apart from the little red book of sayings written by Chairman Mao. Luo and the narrator come by some translations of classic english novels and reading those books turns out to be a life changing experience for them and the little seamstress. I can’t imagine having a restriction on my reading! That would be the worst thing ever.

The novel was pretty humorous in many areas. I loved the story of the alarm clock. Luo and the narrator bring with them a little rooster alarm clock. A clock is an unknown item in the village and soon, it assumes the position of an idol. Little anecdotes about the alarm clock and the story telling prowess of Luo and the narrator lighten the mood of the book. What could have been a rather heavy book about oppression of freedom during Mao’s rule becomes light and easy to read.

I really think that this was a charming book. If you ever get a chance, do pick this book up! I guess there is a movie that’s based on this book that came out in 2002. I am planning to watch that one as well.

Here’s a link to Natasha’s review that made me want to read this book - Natasha.

If you have read this one as well, please do leave me a link in the comments section and I’ll add it to my post!

 

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Shame


Political Background

Before 1947, India was under British Rule. When India was finally free in 1947, it wasn’t free as one nation. Two separate countries were born on that day – India and Pakistan. Pakistan had a west and an east section separated by the Indian mainland. In 1971, East Pakistan became a separate country – Bangladesh. (This is my feeble attempt to summarize the past of three different countries in just three lines. Please bear with me!)

India has remained a secular state recognizing all religions. On the other hand, Pakistan and Bangladesh have declared Islam as their state religion. Around 20 to 25% of Bangladeshis were Hindus in 1971. Now, less than 15% are. Something happened that slowly pushed the Hindu families out of their homeland that they had occupied for generations. Taslima Nasrin documents one such trigger in this book. Though separate countries now, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are more intertwined than they ever want to be.

On December 2, 1992 – A Mosque in India was demolished. Hindu fundamentalists claimed that in the past, during the rule of the great king Babar, a temple in the same location was torn down to build a mosque – the Babri Masjid. They claimed that the area the mosque was built on was a sacred place for the Hindus – a place where one of the Hindu gods was supposed to have been born.

Well, you can guess what would have happened next. Riots broke out all over India. More than 2000 people were killed. Many places of worship (both mosques and temples) were destroyed. What little was left of the Hindu-Muslim unity was shattered.

What is surprising though is the fact that the reaction to this event was not just in India. In Bangladesh, hundreds of Hindus were attacked – men were beaten, women raped, houses and shops burnt, children abducted and killed, temples demolished - All this for events happening in some other country. I guess now you know what I mean when I say that the countries are more intertwined than they want to be.

About the Book

Shame was a very controversial book written by Taslima Nasrin documenting the occurrences in Bangladesh following the demolition of the Babri Masjid in India. Why it became controversial was because of the fact that she took the side of the Hindus and blamed the government for not taking any action when it should have. It initially came out as a novella describing the rape of a Hindu woman by a Muslim man during the riots. She later took the concept and expanded it, making it a 200-odd page novel.

The book was published in 1993 in Bengali under the name “Lajja”. It was immediately banned in Bangladesh and Taslima Nasrin had to flee the country because an Islamic fundamentalist group declared a death sentence.  The book was later translated into many other languages.

The Story

Shame is divided into 13 chapters – one for each day following the demolition of Babri Masjid in India. Taslima wastes no time in giving the background of the riots. Her aim was to bring out her feelings regarding the reaction that she saw in Bangladesh. So, for a reader not from the Indian subcontinent, this book might be difficult to understand because there is no context. But having said that, I sometimes feel that the reason behind such events lose their importance. It is suddenly not anymore about the reason. What become more important are the reaction and the reaction to the reaction. Eugh!

Well, the book surrounds the happenings in life of the Dutta family. The Duttas were Hindus living in Bangladesh. Sudhamay is the head of the family – the father. His wife Kiranmayee is a docile housewife whose sole aim in life is to agree with everything her husband says and serve him. They have two kids – Suranjan and Maya. Maya is a friendly 21 yr old. She is responsible and doesn’t like to depend on her parents for her spending allowance. Suranjan is an atheist who doesn’t believe in religion and is an idealist youth. He is jobless and has no qualms with living off his parents until he finds a job that would satisfy his needs. On the whole, they are a fairly functional family living in Dhaka.

Anyways, the riots start and initially, the severity of the riots doesn’t really hit them. Slowly, they are pulled into it. They keep hearing about everything happening around them. People who they know are moving to India to escape from the atrocities being committed against the Hindus in Bangladesh. But Sudhamay and Suranjan are strong in their beliefs. They feel that Bangladesh is their country and they wouldn’t move out of it. Suddenly, their lives are affected by the riot as well. Their house is attacked and Maya is taken away by a bunch of 21- 22 yr old boys.  

** Warning – Spoiler Ahead.

What is sad is the way the book ends. It is not intended to be a fairy tale and hence the ending is really sad. Sudhamay is finally driven to agree to leave the country. He does this for the sake of the happiness of his wife and son. Maya doesn’t come back though I kept hoping and praying that she would. I so desperately wanted it to end happily but I guess that’s not life. It is sad to see how a relatively happy family, is reduced to a bunch of scared, devastated individuals in a span of less than 2 weeks.

My Views

I have always wanted to read Shame and I am glad I finally got to read it. I am not too clear about the happening in India let alone what happened in Bangladesh.

Until I read books like Riot (By Shashi Tharoor) and Shame, the Babri Masjid incident was only a vague memory for me. I was 10 years old when it happened and what stuck to me was just the fact that the mosque was torn down and the aftermath was horrible - riots all over the country. It was interesting to get the perspective of someone who witnessed the events; someone who was on the protected side in Bangladesh but yet managed to see above it all and feel sorry for the attacked.

First, the positives:

The book comes across as a very strong and powerful piece of writing. Through the depiction of the life of one Hindu family, Taslima manages to capture the essence of the happenings in Bangladesh. It is obvious that she felt that the way the Hindus were treated in Bangladesh was wrong and she has definitely managed to convey the feeling. I totally appreciate her for having the courage to come out with a book documenting her feelings and opinion about such a controversial topic. Taking the side of the Hindu minority, while being a Muslim in an Islamic country, is unthinkable for so many people. I totally admire her guts for sticking to her convictions and not hesitating to voice her opinion.

The book definitely makes you think. It is sad how people change in times like this. Taslima highlights so many incidences where Muslims change their attitudes and behaviors towards Hindus they have been friends with all their lives after incidents like this. I think that is so sad. How can we let some action taken by crazy fundamentalists in other parts of the country (or in a completely different country) influence the way we behave with friends we’ve known all our lives and who actually had nothing to do with the action! I felt sad when Maya and Suranjan reach out to their Muslim friends only to feel awkward in the process. I hated the way it affected young children. In one part, Suranjan’s friend Pulak talks about his little son. The boy used to play with his friends before the riots started. Suddenly they stopped playing with him because their fathers had asked them not to play with Hindu boys. I mean, can you imagine the little 5 year old?? He doesn’t even know what it means to be a Hindu or a Muslim!

The overall impact is very upsetting. Innocent people losing their lives, innocent girls getting gang raped and left to die. I can’t even begin to imagine the mental status of those who managed to survive after such an ordeal!

Now, coming to the negatives:

The book was a tedious read – not because of the language, but because of the details. Every few pages, Taslima gives us an update about the temples that have been demolished, the people who have been driven out of their homes/businesses, women/kids who were abducted/raped, etc. Frankly, after a point, the lists just got to me. I know that she was trying to highlight the damages done but I am thinking the same impact could have been achieved by just giving us summary numbers instead of individual cases – at least that is my personal opinion. And then of course, there’s the political part. Pages and pages citing the constitutions and the amendments that seemed to favor Muslims living in the country. If Taslima’s aim was to increase the awareness of people regarding the supposed ill-treatment of Hindus in Bangladesh, I think she might have slightly over done it here. I personally thought that the book was biased - Too much in favor of the Hindus. The riots following the Babri Masjid demolition wasn’t solely initiated by the Muslims. Though Taslima brought out only the atrocities committed by the Muslim fundamentalists, I know that many Hindu fundamentalist groups reacted badly as well; At least in India. Maybe in Bangladesh, they were too much of a minority to be able to fight what was happening to them. I am not sure.

Recommendation

After reading all this, you must have decided for yourself by now if you want to read this book or not. But if I was given the choice, I would ask you to read it. Read it to get a realistic picture of things happening around the world.

 

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Long Way Gone


I read this book a couple of months ago when I was on vacation in India and I didn’t get a chance to review it then. I read it for the Orbis Terrarum Challenge. My read from Sierra Leone. I am glad I made little notes while reading. Now all that I have to do is compile those little notes and get my review done. I hate it when I fall back on my reviews.
It has been over 2 months since I finished the book and I have read many books after that. But the memories of the book are still strong in me. I must say that “A Long Way Gone” is a pretty powerful book. I still shudder when I think about it.
A Long Way Gone is a memoir – a true life story of a boy soldier in Sierra Leone. A little boy who’s innocent happy boy life which is spent in rapping and having a good time with friends is suddenly stolen from him. He is suddenly exposed to the brutal way and made to run from place to place in search of peace and solace, in search of the family he had lost, and away from the attacking rebels. He starts off with his friends and loses them in the middle.
The kinds of things he experiences and witnesses are horrible. I am wishing I didn’t even have to read about it let alone experience such things. People getting killed by the guerilla forces, being forced to run away from their homes, from the villages that they have known all their lives, see their loved ones die in their arms, lose friends and family, etc- all this when he was 12 years old.  
Eventually, Beah finds himself in a village controlled by the national army. He thinks he is safe here since the army would protect him from the attacking rebels. But soon, he is asked to join and fight for the national army with a bunch of boys as young and as untrained as he was. Fueled by the atrocities he has witnessed, he readily joins the army with no thoughts on what it might do to him. He fights for the army for two years and in this period changes completely. He becomes a cold blooded murderer with no respect for life. He lives in a perpetual haze created by the vast quantities of marijuana and cocaine he consumes. He forgets that his life was once differentt...and he was once different.
Unlike many young boys who fight in wars like this around Africa and around the world, Ishmael Beah finds a saving grace. He is taken to a rehab facility organized by UNICEF for boys like him involved in the war. He slowly and painfully is made to overcome his drug addiction. He comes in contact with humans, with the society and slowly starts to realize that the kind of life he has been living for the past few years is not normal.
He finds an uncle to live with for a while and then is adopted by a lady in the United States.
Beah wrote this book when he was 26 years old, after having gone to school in NYC. But from this book you can see how those years torment him through his life. One thing that is sad about the book is that though it ends happily, you close the book knowing that not every boy soldier’s story has a happy ending. Not every boy managed to survive the war and there are many who still live on in the war ridden countries as cold blooded, drug induced men killing in frenzy.
Coming to the writing style, I realized before long that the intention of the book was not to contribute to literature.. it was written to expose the lives of millions of boy soldiers around the world. The writing comes off as insensitive and harsh many times but I guess that makes the whole thing more real – no lacy details, no frills! I did think that there were many unanswered questions when I finished reading the book. But I can understand why Beah decided to keep his book the way it is now. It is a short, sharp pain; A pain that you won’t forget soon; A pain that will make you be thankful everyday for the happy, protected life you live; A pain that remind you that not everyone in the world is as lucky as you are; A pain that will remind you that not everyone gets to live they want to live;
I would highly recommend this book to everyone. In fact I think it is necessary to read such books and become aware of the lives that some people are forced to live. It is a very touching tale. I must warn you that it is not going to be an easy read though.
If you want to know more about the author, listen to his interviews, read excerpts from the book, etc… you can find it all here in the book’s website.
Reviews by other bloggers : Trish
                                           Mee 
If you have already read this, I would love to see what you thought of it. Please post a comment with a link to the relevant post in your blog.


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

My Soul to Keep


I received Melanie Wells's My Soul to Keep from Camy Tang. Thanks Camy!I must start this review by saying that this is not the kind of book I usually read. But thanks to the book blogging community, I have become adventurous in my reading selections and I must accept that I have been surprised quite a few times.
My soul to keep is a suspense novel. It is the third book in Melanie Wells's Dylan Foster series but I think that it is not necessary to have read the other two books before getting to My Soul to Keep. I mean, maybe reading those books would give you a better context to the happenings of this book because most are the characters are present in the other books as well. but, i read this book without reading the other two and i didnt have any trouble grasping the essence of the book. I would have liked more information on Peter Terry but the events and the descriptions are enough to give me a good intuition. 

well, what is this book about? I guess that is a tough thing to do in a review when the novel is a suspense one.. Well, let me tell you this. Dylan Foster is a professor. She is a obsessively clean kinda person (wiping and dusting all the time) but her life is as chaotic as her house is clean. While organizing a birthday party for one of her friend's daughter Christine, another friend's son Nicholas is kidnapped. The book is all about how they track down Nicholas and find him again. All the time, there is a conflict between the good angel and the demon. The evil demon is haunting Dylan's life and adds to the chaos. Anyways, another interesting twist in the story is Christine's supernatural ability to feel/see what Nicholas is feeling/seeing and that kinda helps them in tracking down where he is.

Well, as i mentioned before...this is not a book that i would have picked up had i read about it before. Suspense? Supernatural powers? Good vs Evil? You must be kidding me! 
But there was something about this book that kept me going. I mean, I was ready to put it down and not get back to it if it was wierd but i actually managed to not only finish the book but actually like it enough to say.."maybe you should give it a shot" in my review!

Seriously.. try it! give it a shot. let me know what you thought of it! do you read suspense novels? well, then go ahead and suggest a few books that you really enjoyed because i am ready to try out a few more suspense novels now!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Swahili for Beginners


Swahili for Beginners by Lisa Joyal - A Young Adult Novel

If I had to describe the book in two words, I would say – sweet and simple.

Georgia is 13 and she lives in Toronto, Canada. She is an energetic girl and is full of dreams. She wants to sail, be an astronaut, ski, etc and her list keeps growing every single day. She is very endearing. She is browsing the internet one day and she finds a pen pal website. She decides to write to a girl, Ellie, in Tanzania. Soon, Ellie and Georgie start communicating and this turns out to be a life changing experience for Georgie. Ellie is a poor Tanzanian from a small village at the foothills for Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Through the innocent letter exchange between Georgie and Ellie, Lisa Joyal brings out the complex lives of people in developing nations. Kids in developed countries take so many things for granted – things that are a luxury for kids in many countries around the world. Through Ellie’s letters, Lisa shows us the actual lives of people in countries like Tanzania – their issues with money, education, health, etc. The book is not all about issues of developing countries. With the help of Ellie and her best friend, Jodi, Georgie leans to come to terms with many things in her own life including her parents divorce and her first crush. Lisa even manages to highlight the issues of Anorexia that is becoming a big problem with young girls in this book.

Swahili for beginners starts out being the simple story of Georgie and her friends but turns out to be very deep. I think it brings out complex issues of pre-teens and teens around the world in a very simple way. The book teaches to you work hard to get things that you want and not to take things for granted. It makes you realize that the world outside is very different from what you see around your own home in developed countries. And the best part is that the morals and the lessons are all well intertwined in an interesting story and hence, makes for an interesting read as well!

I think it is a perfect book for young girls to read. There’s so much to learn from this book. I would definitely recommend this book for young adults!

Check out this link to find out more about the book!

Thanks to minibookexpo for giving me a chance to read such a nice book!

 

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Mrs. Dalloway


As a slight deviation from my initial plan, I read Mrs. Dalloway as the fourth book for my classics challenge. I got Mrs. Dalloway from Bethany for winning the first Orbis Terrarum Giveaway. Thank you Bethany!

Mrs. Dalloway is set in England around the post world war I period. It describes a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway. Clarissa goes about her activities in preparation for a party that she is throwing that evening.

Through Clarissa’s thoughts and actions, Virginia Woolf brings out the complexity of the social structure in post war England.

 During the course of the day, she thinks about her past and her present and contemplates on how her life has turned out. She picked the stable and successful Richard Dalloway over the enigmatic Peter Walsh to marry and she wonders if she made the right choice in life. Peter Walsh confuses her more by paying her a visit in the afternoon after having just returned from India. As a parallel story, we see Septimus a World War I veteran who is in the park with his wife Lucrezia. Ever since the war, Septimus has been suffering from hallucinations. From the park Septimus and Rezia go to a psychiatrist who suggests that it might be better for Septimus to be admitted in a home for the mentally ill in the country. A few hours later, Septimus commits suicide by jumping out a window.

Towards the end of the novel you see how both the stories tie together. After having spent the entire day thinking about her life and her decisions, Clarissa hears about Septimus and his suicide during the evening party. She thinks about it and eventually decides that she actually understands what it is that he does and eventually comes to admire the act. Somehow the parts just fit right in together!

Virginia Woolf beautifully brings out the status of women in England around that time – she just weaves it into Clarissa’s thoughts and activities. She also exposes the pseudo society of England that was so wealth conscious and relationships were built on social standing and not on personalities.

 

Reading Mrs. Dalloway was a tough task for me. The language wasn’t simple and a lot of the sentences went on for more than 10 lines. A sentence contained many different thoughts and it took me a while to actually get into the book and understand Virginia Woolf’s writing style. Evidently, this is my first Woolf book. While I glanced at the book initially, it looked short and easy to read... I was totally mistaken. But I must say that I actually started liking the book halfway through it. I realized that Woolf must have been so forward in thought to write a book like in 1925. It definitely paved the way for modern writing.

Mrs. Dalloway is an interesting read and I would definitely recommend it to anyone who is looking for something different and has the time and the patience to sit through Virginia Woolf’s complex web of thoughts and words.

 

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Trouble with Testosterone


.. And Other Essays on the Biology of the Human Predicament
--Robert.M. Sapolsky

I have a confession to make. In addition to liking all these novels that i read from around the world, i secretly like books that deal with neuro-science...and actually anything related to human biology..(phew! its finally out!)..:) I guess having a masters degree in Biological Sciences does point toward that predilection of mine..

One of my good friends, who also happens to be a professor of psychology feeds my interest with awesome books that totally enthrall me.. One book that I totally enjoyed reading and re-reading was this book by Robert Sapolsky. Robert Sapolsky is a professor of Biological Sciences and a Professor of Neurology and Neurological Sciences at Stanford University and he writes books!(So, I guess in a way, I was predestined to like anything he wrote!).

A small technical interlude in case there is a kindred soul who likes Biological Sciences and loves reading books enough to visit my blog - Sapolsky's main work focuses on Stress and Neuron Degeneration (and on a related note - gene therapy mechanisms to protect susceptible neurons). When he's not in the lab in Stanford, I guess he likes "vacationing" in Kenya annually where he studies a population of wild baboons to identify patterns of relationship between personalities and stress among these animals. He's written some other books along the same lines and you know it as well as I do - I am definitely going to read them!

Did you know???

- In August of 1992, an article published in the prestigious Science journal, finally demonstrated a biological difference between homosexual and heterosexual men. Homosexual men tend to have a smaller "third interstitial nucleus" in the hypothalamus ( the part of the brain that is central to sexual behavior) when compared to heterosexual men.. can you even imagine the implications of this discovery?? I guess that would be a whole post in itself. Of course, it is yet to be determined if the small "Third interstitial nucleus" is the cause of effect of being homosexual..

- A researcher of Chimps in Tanzania discovered a strange eating pattern among the Chimps. On waking, some of the chimps ate the leaves of the Aspilia plant..well, they didn't actually eat it but just kept it under their tongues for a few minutes before swallowing it whole. The strange thing was that these leaves weren't even tasty and the primates grimaced as they ate it.. Why would they want to put themselves through such an ordeal?? Well, looks like the leaves are rich in an antibacterial substance that helps in cleaning the digestive tracts of unwanted bacteria! I guess they have thir own little primate pharmacies with prescriptions as well!:))

- All primates tend to live in groups. One interesting phenomenon observed in these groups is the mechanism of adolescent emigration (i.e., adolescent primates moving permanently from one group to another). I guess that is nature's way of preventing inbreeding among the primate population. The coming together of two groups and the emigration of an adolescent from one group to another seems random but it sure isn't.

Well, i guess you get the general hang of the book from this. I loved reading all the essays in this book and I got too carried away by the subject matter to actually analyze and see how a lay person (with absolutely no biology background whatsoever) would understand and like the book. If you are looking for a different kind of a read, i would totally recommend this book to you.

If you have already read it, i would love to hear your views on this one.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Night of Flames


No matter how many versions of it you read, some stories always tend to have the effect on you. One such story is the gruesome story of the Holocaust and the states of Germany and countries surrounding it during World War II. My first encounter with this story was through the diary of a 13 year old young Jewish girl – yes, Anne Frank.  Since then, I have heard this story often… Various books, various authors, same story – Exodus by Leon Uris (The story of Jews fleeing from the Nazis in Europe and the birth of Israel), The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman (which is a non fiction about Jan and Antonia who save Jews from the Nazis and protect them by putting them in animal cages in the Warsaw zoo), Night by Elie Wiesel (an autobiographical account of a holocaust survivor  of his life in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps), The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (a best selling novel about a little German girl during World War II who befriends a Jewish man in the basement of her home) and finally Night of Flames by Douglas W Jacobson. The books are so similar… yet, so unique in their own way.

Night of Flames is a historical fiction about a young couple in Krakow, Poland – Anna and Jan and how their lives become entangled with the Polish and Belgian Resistance movements. Anna is a University professor in Krakow. Her husband Jan is a Polish Cavalryman. Jan is called to fight in the resistance against Germany’s attack on Poland. Meanwhile, Germans take over Krakow. All the intellectuals in Krakow are called for a meeting and they are arrested overnight and taken to Germany to be executed. Anna’s dad is one amongst the arrested professors. Anna is forced to flee from Poland with a Jewish friend and her son. Anna’s friend dies in the middle and only Anna and Justyn reach Belgium. There’s as the years go by, Anna gets slowly involved in the Belgian Resistance. Jan, on the other hand, gets deeply entangled with the Polish resistance.

Through Anna and Jan, we get to know the happenings of the Polish and Belgian resistances. They meet a lot of people in their journeys (Polish, German and Belgian) and we get to know about the holocaust from personal experiences of the people they meet. One part that I really liked was the part about Otto. When Anna is taken by a German officer, Otto (The officer’s chauffer) saves her from him. Otto was a guard at the Auschwitz concentration camp and we realize that he’s having a tough time dealing with what he saw there. That little incident really made me think. It is easy for us to say “cruel Germans” every time we think of the holocaust, but it is not like everyone involved in it did it because they wanted to do it… many, in fact, most did it because they had to!

And somehow, throughout the book, one message is really clear. In the middle of the war and executions and everything – people still survived. I think it is just two things that kept them going on – hope and trust. The trust that they had in each other is amazing. Especially at a time where one wrong word could kill you and all those around you, people trusted each other and friends and worked together for the resistance. And this was brought out over and over again in the book.

Many characters, many little stories embedded throughout the novel. The novel is not about Anna and Jan. It could have centered on Justyn, or Willy, or any of the other characters that we came across… because what Douglas really brought out was not a love story. It was the story of World War II in Europe.

I really enjoyed reading the book. If I had to, I would give it 3 stars out of five. It definitely wouldn’t come in the best books of the year list… but nevertheless, it was a good book and the fact that Douglas has researched so much to get this book out has to be definitely appreciated. Everytime I read about World War II, I learn so many new things. I am glad that there are authors who still write about it and keep the events from becoming just events in the history text books. I think it is essential that everyone knows what happened then, for the sole purpose of learning from history and making sure that things like that will never ever happen again.. 

If you have read this book, do let me know what you thought of it. If you have a review online then just send me the link and I’ll add it to this post!