Wild Swans, by Jung Chang

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China
by Jung Chang
narrated by Joy Osmanski

This contains spoilers. 

Wild Swans is the memior of Jung Chang’s childhood in China during the Cultural Revolution, but it’s not only about her. She begins with the story of her grandmother. 


Jung Chang’s grandmother was a concubine to a warlord. She had to use charm and wit to keep herself safe from being held prisoner by the warlord’s family – as she was considered the property of the warlord and of his legitimate wives. Upon her warlord’s death, she made the very difficult decision to marry, which caused many problems for her, her new husband, and potentially her afterlife (in which her husband and warlord would cut her in half to share her). This story delves into great detail about the strife that Jung Chang’s grandmother had to overcome. Now that I’m familiar with how foot binding works I will shudder every time I hear mention of it. I never realized….

The next section of the book is about Jung Chang’s mother, who grew up mainly during the strife between her mother and her stepfather’s family. WWII was also raging, which meant occupation and brutalization by the Japanese. (This was the most difficult section for me to read.) Once the Japanese occupation ended, their country was ruled by tyranny, thus bringing on the communist uprising. Jung Chang’s mother became deeply involved in the Communist Party while very young, but felt betrayed by The Party by the time she was pregnant with her first child. 

The final section talks about Jung Chang’s childhood, watching the Communist Party emotionally and physically torture those around her, including her parents. She vividly portrays the original innocence that she had – believing in the communist party and Mao’s propaganda. Slowly, gently, she began to emerge from this innocence. More gracefully than would be expected, given what was going on around her. That speaks to the power of Mao’s campaign. 

This was a fascinating and beautifully written book. It’s written lovingly, yet it’s brutally honest. The research is so amazing that every once in a while I wondered “how does she know that?” Her years’ worth of research definitely paid off. This book deserves the fantastic worldwide sales that it has received. I am tempted to read Jung Chang’s biography of Mao pretty soon. 


I am Malala, by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb

I Am Malala: The Girl who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban
by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb
narrated by Archie Panjabi
I am Malala is Malala Yousafzai’s memoir about her time in Pakistan promoting education for girls. She begins by discussing her family – from her grandparents, to her parents, and then to herself. She discusses the major political and geological forces that impacted her childhood and led up to her eventually being shot by the Taliban. She finished the book talking about how she felt when she awoke in England not knowing what had happened or where her family was. It is truly an amazing story. 

Since I read this book for Non-Fiction November 2015, I will write my review in a different format than usual, by answering a list of questions: 

1. What did you think of the tone and style in which I Am Malala was written?

While listening to the book, two things occurred to me. The first is that the tone was a bit naive and honest in the way only a child can be. The types of things she observed, for instance, like how much or less attractive someone was than herself. Their skin color, etc. I realize these things are thought about by adults, but the innocent way she brought them up was darling. I also felt that the way she talked about her competition for being first in class was cute. In an adult that would seem like a lack of humility if talked about with such frequency. But in her, it was sweet. 

It also occurred to me that the writing was much too fleshed out to be entirely written by a young teenager. There was some obvious journalistic questioning going on before writing the book – and that is to the benefit of the story, and clearly the work of Christina Lamb. 

2. What did you think of the political commentary in the book?

I found the political commentary interesting, especially since I’m only somewhat educated on the subject. The commentary obviously didn’t have the powerful understanding shown in a book like The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini but it showed that Malala was quite intelligent and observant. It was interesting hearing those events from the eyes of a child. 

As long as I’m comparing the book to fiction, it reminds me somewhat of In the Country of Men, by Hisam Matar in the sense that it is about “adult” events narrated from the eyes of a child. Of course, there are three major differences: location, fiction/non-fiction, and the age of the author. But still, I think it’s an interesting comparison. 

3. Did anything particularly surprise you about Malala’s daily life or culture?

I was surprised to hear how socially active Malala was before she was shot. I assumed the story was about a girl who became active only after she was shot – in other words, that the bullet was random, and that it gave her an opportunity to speak out. But, no, she was from a “privileged” environment (at least at the end) and was shot because she was speaking out. 

4. Do you think you would act similarly to Malala in her situation? If you were her parents, would you let her continue to be an activist despite possible danger?

I wouldn’t be as brave as Malala, nor do I think I am as intelligent as Malala. If I were her parents, I would support her doing whatever she felt was best. That’s what my parents always did with me. It’s a great way to let a child grow into her own.

5. What did you think of the book overall?

I do not usually read memoirs – not sure why, I just tend to gravitate towards the heavier non-fiction. But this book was pretty fascinating for me. Malala was so intelligent and perceptive. I loved her voice. (I don’t mean the narrator’s voice, though she did a lovely job.) This book makes me want to read more memoirs. 

I would normally give this book 4 stars for writing and interest level, but since it’s such an important topic, it gains an extra star. 

Surprised by Joy, by C. S. Lewis

2012 Book 144: Surprised by Joy

Written by C. S. Lewis, Narrated by Geoffrey Howard

Reason for Reading: I’m slowly working through the books of C. S. Lewis out of curiosity for his theology. 



Reveiw

In this short memoir, C. S. Lewis describes his spiritual journey from youthful atheist to firm and faithful believer. This isn’t really a memoir of Lewis’ life, although it does contain some interesting anecdotes about his school years. Mostly, he only focuses on incidents in his life that impacted his spiritual development. I have read many spiritual development memoirs, and this one is like the others…only it stands out because it is a classic. It was written when these types of journeys were not as commonly shared in memoirs. (In fact, I suspect that this book was one of the ones that inspired so many of the spiritual-journey memoirs that we see today.) One thing I found interesting about this book is it explained to me why so many people retro-diagnose Lewis with Asperger’s syndrome. He talked about his difficulties dealing with other students…not knowing how to respond in social situations and being told to “take that look off [his] face” when he was trying very hard to keep an appropriate facial expression. I think it is important to recognize that we can’t accurately retro-diagnose people with today’s syndromes, but it IS interesting to see how such personality traits were present in Lewis’ day, and how he excused them with stories about how childhood events affected his social interactions. It was definitely an interesting read…and anyone who likes to hear about others’ spiritual journeys really should start with C. S. Lewis.


Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl


2012 Book 130: Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl (9/5/2012)


Reason for Reading: One of the essays in Fantasy Media in the Classroom, talked about a fusion class which combined Man’s Search for Meaning and The Lucifer Effect with science fiction books like The Invisible Man and The Strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in which men choose “evil.” I thought since I’ve been reading a lot of books about men who choose “evil” that I’d try out Man’s Search for Meaning. I’ll try to fit in The Lucifer Effect soon. It gives an interesting perspective on why some people choose “good” and other choose “evil.” Frankl’s message was that people can choose to be “swine” or “saints,” but they make this choice over and over throughout their lives and their search for meaning is the motivation behind each decision.

My Review
In the first half of this fascinating little book, Frankl describes his years in the concentration camps (including Auschwitz) with the purpose of analyzing the behavior of people in extreme situations. He admits that someone who wasn’t there can’t give a very detailed or personal account, but a person who WAS there can’t give a detached account because they were emotionally involved. I think he did an excellent job of viewing the situation with detachment, considering the situation. This was a really interesting little memoir. The second half of the book introduces his theory of psychoanalysis: logotherapy. Logotherapy is focused on man’s search for meaning; in contrast to Freudian theory focusing on man’s search for pleasure and Adlerian theory focusing on man’s search for power. I think Logotherapy is the most sensible form of psychotherapy I’ve ever heard of. How can I argue that our happiness depends on our perceiving our own purpose? I admit I felt a little skepticism when he kept bringing up examples of how he’d “cured” someone after only one session–he must have been a particularly clever person to manage that so often. 😉 But that aside, I think the technique of finding meaning in a patient’s life is rather useful. 🙂

I Shall Not Hate, Izzeldin Abuelaish


2012 Book 112: I Shall Not Hate, by Izzeldin Abuelaish (7/23/2012)

Reason for Reading: Reading Globally Middle Eastern theme read

My Review 
In this heartbreaking (yet strangely uplifting) memoir, Abuelaish relates his life—growing up in poverty in a Palestinian refugee camp, slaving so that he could raise enough money to go to medical school, and his rising career coincident with his growing family. Despite losing 3 daughters and a niece to an Israeli military action, Abuelaish preaches that love, not hate, is required to bring peace. Abuelaish’s story is engrossing and tragic, yet I couldn’t help but think about all of the suffering Palestinians who don’t have a voice. If life is so hard for someone who has powerful connections, what must it be like for those who have no one to help them? This is a must-read for people who think Palestinians are all about terrorism and throwing rocks—people who likely wouldn’t touch the book with a 10-foot pole. It’s also a fantastic read for someone who is sympathetic to both sides of the conflict, but who wants to hear a personal story. I DO wish I could read the story of someone who isn’t highly connected, but this is a fantastic start. And Abuelaish’s enduring message of love make a monumental memoir.

Born on a Blue Day, by Daniel Tammet

2012 Book 65: Born on a Blue Day, by Daniel Tammet (4/22/2012)

Reason for Reading: Autism Awareness Month

My Review 4/5 stars
This is a coming-of-age memoir about a high-functioning autistic savant who also has synesthesia. It is rare for a savant to be as high-functioning as Tammet, therefore this memoir provides a unique and fascinating look into Asperger’s, savantism, and synesthesia. It was endearing to watch Tammet metamorphose from an awkward child into a much more secure adult. The story is insightful and inspiring…I imagine it would be especially so for teens with Asperger’s who are concerned that they will never be able to function in the “real world.”

The Complete Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi

2012 Book 24: The Complete Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi (2/7/2012)

Reason for reading: I wanted to read a YA book with Muslims in it, though this turned out to be neither YA nor to have very much about the Muslim faith. But it was still enjoyable.

Personal note: I am currently reading The Landmark Xenophon’s Hellenika and I keep coming across the word “satrap,” which is the title of a governor of a provence in ancient Persia. So it was very amusing to me to come across the modern Persian name Satrapi. I feel like I’ve made a connection. 🙂

My Review: 4/5 stars
Persepolis is a graphic memoir about Marjane Satrapi, a young “modernized” girl growing up in Iran during the Islamic revolution. Due to the trials of being an outspoken modern girl in this oppressive regime, she must leave her family and live alone in Austria to finish her education. There, she loses herself before finally coming to terms with her own identity. It was a heartbreaking memoir. The story and art were very dark, but humorous as well. I thought this book would be for young adults, but feel it would appropriate only for a VERY mature teenager. It has topics such as torture, rape, violence, and drugs. It was very educational about the revolutionary regime, though I don’t know how biased it is.