Tag Archives: book review

War Stories from Belfast

Book: Watching the Door: Drinking Up, Getting Down, and Cheating Death in 1970s Belfast Published 2009, by Kevin Myers.

Destination: Belfast, Northern Ireland

Watching the Door, a memoir of a journalist drawn to the unrelenting tragedy of the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, is as much about a young man’s coming of age as it is about the battles (more commonly murders) he was covering in Belfast.

I’m warning you right now that despite the skillful writing and terrific wit of Kevin Myers, you may find this book hard to take with its unrelenting drumbeat of death after death after death.

On the other hand, if you want to understand the struggle between the Irish and the British and the inextricable parallel struggle between Protestants and Catholics, I doubt you could find a better guide.

Myers describes the young man that he was with an unflinching eye.  The same devotion to being totally honest applies to his portraits of the many Irish that he ran into as a young reporter. At the end of the book, he clarifies which ones have their actual names, and which have fictitious names–even though they are real people. Because of his supposed neutrality as a reporter, he gained access to people in all the various factions, and paints their portraits with ironic clarity.  Although the young Kevin was a liberal and sympathetic to rebels and nonconformists, he has grown out of his youthful fascination and verbally skewers all sides with the kind of deadly aim they once took on each other with guns.

Once you’ve read this book, it will be hard to forget some of those characters like  the young waitress who blandly described how she aided IRA murders by holding up a mail slot flap so the sniper could shoot through the hole undetected, but didn’t understand at all how she was culpable; or the young assassin who could not tolerate swear words. And then there was his good friend who did not believe in war or killing, but did believe in getting even–a fine distinction.

Myers clearly demonstrates how muddled the question of right and wrong and cause and effect become in such a struggle.  This is particularly clear when he talks about how the British, being kindly, provided health care for people who were damaged in any way by the unrest. Therefore people piled into an ambulance that showed up and began claiming trauma–although their fellow Irishmen may have lain bleeding from actual wounds from a bombing.  And people whose homes were destroyed could apply to the government for a new home, thus providing a massive building industry and jobs for thousands of men from Northern Ireland who were compelled to contribute part of their wages to the local military. In this way the British were funding the insurrection against the British.

The numbing recital of murders turns into suspense when the reporter himself becomes the prey for some imagined wrong against some group or other. More than once he is warned by a friendly person that this or that leader has assigned assassins to hunt him down.  Thus he, like most people who live in Belfast, lies awake waiting for the door to open and gunfire to spray the room, or an explosion that will destroy the building he is in.  He survives several of these threats–presumably because the thugs have found easier or more deserving targets.

The parade of death is also interrupted by his recital of sexual affairs and even a love affair or two.  Not to mention LOTS of alcohol.  The setting for the book is as much bars as the street.

Like so many war correspondents, he frequently reaches the point where he thinks he should leave (he has Irish heritage but was raised in Britain) but he always thinks that it is all going to end soon, and there is a terrible fascination in living in such danger.

The truth was that the only people who really knew what they wanted were the leaders of the insurgency; one of the singular characteristics of almost any terrorist war.

Not that I was engaged in any such useful speculation.  Unsuspectingly, I had passed a moral and psychological Rubicon.  War had become a natural condition of my life now, as the city closed in on itself, tribal village by tribal village, each withdrawing to its clearly defined boundaries; and when they were not clearly defined, they were redefined by ruthless expulsion and intimidation.

Because Myers was not tied to any particular group, he has no “side of the story” and thus gives a clear-eyed view of what insurrection is like, that reminds me of the Kenya I saw  in my review of The Boy is Gone.

Life in Belfast was now defined by murder, indignation, accusation and counter-accusation.  Historical forces were at work here, and like flotsam in a raging sea, people found themselves being hurled against the implacable rocks of fatal injustice.

His Belfast in the 60s is a terrible, soul-less place. Terrifying at worst, gloomy at best.  I am assured that this bears no resemblance to the present Belfast, and the book should only inform travelers of the past, not persuade them to stay away in the present.  Kerry Dexter, writing at Perceptive Travels, suggests some things to see, cautions, and music for your trip.

There are links here to Amazon.com. You need to know that I am an Amazon affiliate, and as such earn a few cents each time that you buy something through those links. Thank you for your support of A Traveler’s Library.

War Stories from Africa

Some people prefer something more meaty for their summer reading, so I’m slipping two non-fiction books about armed conflict in between beach, romance and mystery novels. The Boy Is Gone: Conversations with a Mau Mau General , and an older book Watching the Door: Drinking Up, Getting Down, and Cheating Death in 1970s Belfast, about the Irish civil conflict.

I just happened to be reading both at the same time. One is new, one is old, and they take place in very different places. But I could not help thinking how similar people’s motivations were in both, and what the armed conflict around them did to the participants.

Book: The Boy is Gone, by Laura Lee P. Huttenbach, NEW published in 2015 as part of Ohio University’s “Africa in World History” series.

Destination: Kenya

Mt. Kenya
Mt. Kenya. Photo by OI IO, from Flckr.com

Through the introduction and the footnotes of this book, the reader can learn a great deal about Kenya, the various people who live there, and how the land is divided between forest, farms and cities. That makes this valuable to the traveler who is brave enough to venture into a still unstable country. Although the Mau Mau is gone, the struggles continue. Safaris are apparently safe, although I wouldn’t advise shooting a favorite lion. The BBC gave this excellent Kenya travel advice to President Obama for his recent visit.

In The Boy is Gone, Laura Lee Huttenbach lets the former Mau Mau general tell his own story, gleaned from her many, many hours of recorded conversations at his home in Kenya.  This lends the book an immediacy and a tone that is unique, if sometimes rather challenging at times, since his English vocabulary is somewhat limited.

The General himself points out that English has many more words than the Kenyan languages. That means that he condenses many meanings into one English word. For instance, as the author explains in an introductory chapter, “Serious, in the General’s usage, means severe, desperate, dangerous, or brutal.”

This technique of recorded personal narrative means that we are hearing the story of the Mau Mau from an insider’s point of view. I realized that my knowledge of the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya was all based on  news coverage influenced by the British. I had never heard from the Mau Mau, and therefore, ironically, had strong opinions about them.  As the old saw goes, the victors write history.  Today, with more points of view represented on television, and more investigative journalism in print, we might have heard both sides of the story, but in the sixties, whatever Walter Cronkite said on the evening news was the basis for our understanding of events.

The biggest misconception that Huttenbach refutes early in the book, is how besieged the British planters in Kenya were.  We saw stories of them slaughtered in their beds, farms burned, being driven from the only home they had ever known.  A footnote quoting the book Histories of the Hanged, states that most of the casualties of the uprising were native Africans, not the Europeans.

…only thirty-two European settlers died in the rebellion, and there were fewer than two hundred casualties among the British regiments and police who served Kenya over these years.  Yet more than 1800 African civilians are known to have been murdered by Mau Mau, and many hundreds more to have disappeared…

Officially, the author of Histories, David Anderson, goes on to say, official numbers of Mau Mau rebels killed in combat is 12,000, but the real figure is likely to have been more than 20,000. I do not doubt that it was a terrifying time–the Mau Mau wanted the British to be terrified enough to leave, but when it comes to actual deaths, the Africans suffered more.

We learn from the General’s recollection that those African civilian casualties were not necessarily caused by the British.  Just as the Islamic State today is murdering Muslims who do not measure up to their own ideas of purity, the most radical Mau Maus eliminated anyone they suspected of being a collaborator with the Europeans.

At first I felt a sympathy toward General Japhet Thambu as he explained the ways in which the British missionaries and then settlers and businessmen had wronged the Kenyan natives.  It is easy to understand the simmering resentment that finally brought rebellion. The General clearly is intelligent and charismatic as he emerged as a leader not only in the military of the Mau Mau but later as a leader of the tea growers alliance.

However, there were aspects of his personality that were hard to swallow. For instance, when  in the opinion of the rebels someone needed to be killed,  he made sure that someone else did the killing and he was not present so that he would not be brought up on charges later.  He differentiates between the thugs who only wanted to raise undisciplined havoc and those who were seriously fighting for freedom (a fight he compares to the American Revolution). However, he clearly is proud as he rationalizes the techniques of the Mau Mau  to appear as uncivilized as possible in order to frighten the European population. If that isn’t a definition of terrorism, I’m not sure what is.

Thambu  frequently mentions people who were his enemy, and I couldn’t help wanting to hear their side of the story. It certainly is necessary to take someone’s self description with a bit of skepticism.

Because of the format of the The Boy is Gone, we hear a side of this conflict that we never heard before, learning their motivation and that not all of them were wild blood-thirsty natives.  But within the Mau Mau we only hear one side.  Since this book is meant for students of African history, one hopes that it will stimulate more researchers to delve into the many complexities that are simplified by hearing one man’s tale.

Meanwhile if you are interested in widening and deepening your view of Africa, this is an important book to read.

Page down to the next post to see the review of Watching the Door, for another conflict with similarities.

Note:  The publisher provided a review copy of this book, which is standard practice, and does not influence my opinion. There are links here to The Boy is Gone so that you can purchase it on Amazon. You should know that I am an Amazon affiliate, which means I make a few cents on each sale.  Thank you for supporting A Traveler’s Library.

Summer Read: Updating Anne of Green Gables


Destination: Northern California

Book: Ana of California by Andi Teran (NEW June 2015)

 

 


The most beloved books seem to be those with the most beloved (or at least most fascinating) lead characters.  That is certainly true of the book Anne of Green Gables about an orphan girl adopted by a farmer brother and sister who lived on Prince Edward Island.  Ten-year-old Anne couldn’t keep her mouth shut, had an enormous vocabulary and a run away imagination.  Every little girl who had been told to be sensible and sit quietly, wanted to be just like Anne. And now we have a teen version of Anne in Ana of California.

Anne of Green Gables:

…what a relief not (to) be told that children should be seen and not heard….But if you have big ideas you have to use big words to express them, haven’t you?

The popularity of the original accounts for numerous spin-offs and today’s tourist attraction of Green Gables farm and village and a whole itinerary for fans of Anne on Prince Edward Island. Since somehow I missed Anne (with an “e” she points out, since Ann without an “e” is so ordinary) when I was a little girl pointing out to people that even though it was two words, Vera Marie was meant to be said as one name.

Because I was reading the Bobbsey Twins series and other books like Black Beauty and Heidi and Beautiful Joe instead of Anne of Green Gables, I was  not tempted to go to pay homage to Green Gables when I was in the area.

House of Green Gables
The house that inspired House of Green Gables. Photo by Peter Broster

However, I have been to the charming redwood country of northern California where Ana of California is set. Now I wonder if in years to come, there will be tours of Ana’s town of Hadley and the Garber Farm? My conclusion (read on) is probably not.

Redwoods
Giant Redwoods, Northern California

Ana of California, when Ana first sees the wild forests of northern California:

Sunlight zigzagged across the dashboard as the truck crept out of the density of the forest and coasted down the hill into a canyon dotted with pine trees.

“Holy—” Ana exhaled. “This view is insane.”

Anne of Green Gables, when she first sees the blooming apple trees of Prince Edward Island:

Overhead was one long canopy of snowy fragrant bloom. Below the boughs the air was full of a purple twilight, and far ahead a glimpse of painted sunset sky shone like a great rose window at the end of a cathedral aisle.

“Pretty? Oh, PRETTY doesn’t seem the right word to use. Not beautiful either.  They don’t go far enough. Oh, it was wonderful, wonderful.  It’s the first think I ever saw that couldn’t be improved by my imagination.”

Ana, a fifteen-year-old orphan of troubled Mexican immigrant parents is very different in many ways from the innocent Anne. Yet, the author clearly was influenced by the older book as she wrote this engrossing coming of age tale. Ana (“Ana like ‘fauna’  not Anna like ‘banana'” she points out with the same sensitivity about names as Anne with an ‘e’).

Both girls, redheads, used to being rejected and totally lacking rural experience, have been sent to a farm run by a sister and brother. In both cases the farmers were hoping for a boy to help with chores. Both girls are vivid personalities. But the differences are so vast, that I hardly identified Ana of California, which reads like a very well written young adult novel with Anne of Green Gables, a children’s book.  Both books have and will be read by adults because there are some charming moments and universal truths to be found.

Ana is well versed in music and art because she loves her time in the library in L.A.

“I’ve spent so much time in the library–it’s the only real home I’ve ever known.  And even though it’s open only at certain times, it’s always welcoming, no matter who you are or where you come from, it’s there without judgment.”

The publisher does not call this a YA novel, which is just as well, because it might miss an audience with that label. On the other hand, it reads like a YA. Ana’s story is at times heart-wrenching, and the supporting cast of characters are drawn with a depth of intricacy not often seen. I loved Ana and wanted to know what she and all those interesting folks around her were going to do. And because she’s a teen, there’s romance as well.

Teran has a real way with words–the words that come from Ana, mostly. But the novel still qualifies as a light-weight–a perfect summer read that you will breeze through. I say that despite the difficulties of a teen character dealing with being gay and the fact that the book touches on the issue of discrimination against Mexican-Americans, and Ana’s own life experience with gangs and violence. So your opinion may be different.

The focus on what styles and particularly what music is ‘in’ or ‘out’ frequently went over my head. When I looked up Ana’s favorite band, the girl band Hex,  I learned that it is fictitious, although she talks about real groups as well. That focus on contemporary teen life,  guarantees that Ana will not have the staying power of Anne. Ana of California speaks directly to adults who came up through the sixties and teens of the the 21st century. And it nails them and their culture. But in another decade it will be as incomprehensible as Joyce’s Ulysses without notes.

As a side note, I was fascinated by the farm and the things Abigail Garber cooks and preserves and hauls to the farmer’s market and sells to a restauranteur interested in locally grown produce. Ana learns what kale is and the difference between a Japanese eggplant and a turnip and how to tell weeds from parsley.  If you have not been to a farmer’s market recently, this book may inspire you to go. And Teran needs to publish a companion cookbook. I want the meal of roast chicken, carrot salad, rosemary corn bread and lavender lemonade. (She and the publishers, Penguin, have produced a Book Club Kit that does a include a couple of recipes, an interview and a play list of the music mentioned in the book. The pdf may take a while to load.)

Most importantly,  I loved Andi Teran’s style.  Hispanic herself, she even introduces a bit of magical realism.  This is her first novel, and I’m hoping she will expand her reach in the next one, and set free her imagination and ability to create oh-so-memorable characters. And I would love to see her set a novel in her native New Mexico, which she describes beautifully in a Paris Review article about the TV show Breaking Bad. Teran is an author to keep an eye on. Meanwhile, despite my reservations, I recommend Ana of California as a pleasing summer read, for adults as well as teens.

Note

  • There are links here to Amazon.com. I am an affiliate, so when you buy something through those links, although it costs you no more, I make a few cents to help pay the rent on A Traveler’s Library. Thanks.
  • The Green Gables picture is from Flickr, used with Creative Commons license. The Redwood forest picture is my own.  Please inquire before reusing.