Strange & Norrell, Wine to Water, The Egyptian Revolution, and The Dream of the Celt

This week’s book reviews (with the exception of #1, which is just an irresistible indulgence) are dedicated to people who want to save the world.

Jonathan Strange & Mr NorrellJonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is an absolute delight: witty, intelligent, exciting, and original.

I am addicted to footnotes (I even like reading annotated critical editions of novels), so I adored the abundant tongue-in-cheek scholarly footnotes in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. I also appreciated the length. No matter how quickly you read, you won’t be finishing it in an afternoon. At over 1000 pages, there is just so much of this book to love.

The interweaving of real history, 19th century British culture, and wild magic was seamless and satisfying. The characters are fascinating, quirky, and eminently memorable (the male characters, at least. The female characters are decidedly stereotyped and mostly minor. For that reason I would not compare this to a Jane Austen novel, as some have).

The book is full of quotable lines (“Can a magician kill a man by magic?” Lord Wellington asked Strange. Strange frowned. He seemed to dislike the question. “I suppose a magician might,” he admitted, “but a gentleman never would.” ). There are lots of hilarious scenes, and it’s deliciously unpredictable. I’m almost ready to pick it up and read it again right now.

Wine to Water: A Bartender's Quest to Bring Clean Water to the WorldWine to Water: A Bartender’s Quest to Bring Clean Water to the World by Doc Hendley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While wondering what (if anything) to do with his life, bartender Doc Hendley decided to go to Darfur for a year on a mission to bring clean water to villages affected by the ongoing violence between rival Sudanese factions.

Hendley’s prose is a little rough, but his unstudied informality is actually endearing. Behind the gruff biker rebelling against his straitlaced religious past (his father is a “preacher man”) is a genuine person awakening to what he has to contribute to the world.

Although I enjoyed some of the more exciting incidents, like getting shot at by Janjaweed militias, my favorite parts of the book were Hendley’s introspective moments, and his totally unselfconscious meditations on life, his Christian faith, and the paradoxes of international development.

The organization Hendley formed, Wine to Water, currently provides clean water in nine countries, with a focus on sustainability and local cooperation. If you’re interested in hosting a Wine to Water fundraising party, you can check out the website here:

Revolution 2.0: The Power of the People Is Greater Than the People in Power, a MemoirRevolution 2.0: The Power of the People Is Greater Than the People in Power, a Memoir by Wael Ghonim

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you’re looking for an insider’s account of last year’s Egyptian Revolution, you won’t do better than this. Wael Ghonim was not only an eyewitness to the events of the revolution, but also a key figure in it. An executive with Google, he used his marketing experience to effectively spread the message of revolution to the youth of Egypt, break the fear barrier, and bring hundreds of thousands out on the streets.

A good portion of the book is made up of primary source documents, in the form of posts he made on the wall of the Facebook page he created to mobilize the youth of Egypt. His passionate Facebook appeals work synergistically with his personal narrative to create a riveting, very immediate reading experience. I felt like I was living the Egyptian Revolution along with Ghonim.

Although Ghonim’s at times overblown prose might seem excessive to readers unfamiliar with Egypt and Egyptians, just go ahead and suspend your disbelief and take him seriously, and you’ll be rewarded with an inspiring look into the mind and work of a modern-day hero.

The Dream of the Celt: A NovelThe Dream of the Celt: A Novel by Mario Vargas Llosa

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read the first 50 pages of this book in the original Spanish, but then switched over to the English translation because #1 I’m too lazy to spend that much time with the dictionary and #2 it was just too weird to picture this Irish guy speaking Spanish.

I really liked the intermittent flashback format, because it gave the book (and the main character’s life) coherence. Whatever the later controversies of his life, Roger Casement has my respect and admiration for his tireless and self-sacrificing quest to rid the world of injustice. Over a couple of decades, he courageously persevered in exposing the Rubber Barons’ horrific abuses of native peoples in the Congo and Peru, despite death threats, severe illness, and extreme emotional strain.

The last third of the book, which deals with the struggle for Irish independence, is not as readable. Casement’s claim that colonialism in Ireland was essentially the same as in the Congo is not really credible. Still, I have a soft spot for Irish revolutionaries, and I am so glad that he can rest in peace now knowing that his country is free.

The work is subtitled “A Novel,” but it reads much more like a biography. I wish that Llosa had included something at the end to assist the reader in separating fact from fiction. I’d like to know how much the Roger Casement I grew to care about is like the real one.

Although the “Black Diaries” are admittedly an important part of the plot (and I think it’s sick and tragic how the British government made use of them), I didn’t really appreciate reading so much out of them. Llosa’s claim that they were authored by Casement but largely fantasies rather than descriptions of real exploits seemed a little weird, but I’m not really qualified to judge its merits.

Advisory: For those who, like me, are prudish to some degree, be aware that there is some sexual content (i.e. the contents of said “black diaries”) in this book.

View all my reviews

photo credit

Ramping Up the Mommy Wars

I woke up this morning to the above-pictured Time magazine cover and accompanying media storm. On the one hand, I love it. Breastfeeding is a normal thing, healthy both biologically and emotionally for mother and child. And the World Health Organization recommends that women nurse their children at least until age two for optimum health and development.

That’s why on the surface it’s confusing why such a photograph would be labeled by the Media as “controversial,” “shocking,” or “provocative.” Until I remember that it’s par for the course in our culture to sexualize every possible thing we can. Let’s face it, the fact that breastfeeding #1 involves breasts, and #2 in our society is typically relegated to bedrooms, out-of-the-way corners, and even bathrooms, causes certain people to view it as a subset of sex. Sad, but true.

It’s not clear that the photographer even intended the images to carry sexual overtones. An interview with photographer Martin Schoeller on Time’s website said he modeled them after “religious images of the Madonna and Child.” If you take a look at this beautiful collection of religious art depicting Mary and Jesus, I think you’ll agree with me that Schoeller’s images are tame by comparison.

However, the photo’s caption makes the magazine’s position clear, accusing attachment parenting of “driv[ing] some women to extremes.”  The reason for the negative portrayal of breastfeeding past infanthood is obvious from the associated article title: “Are You Mom Enough?” Earlier this year, a similar interview with a Hollywood star who practices attachment parenting opened with the telling line, “Mayim Bialik parents in a way that makes the rest of us look like slackers.”

Why are we threatened by people who parent differently from how we do? Why do we feel this need to put down other people to make ourselves feel better? We’re all different people, part of different families, and in different circumstances. We all make choices about how to raise our children, and I like to think most of us make those choices carefully, with our children’s welfare and happiness in mind.

Yes, I breastfed my daughter until she was at least as old as the boy in the picture. But no, I don’t think you’re not “mom enough” if you didn’t. Let’s stop judging one another and start celebrating together the many different and beautiful ways we love and nurture our children.

photo credits: Time Magazine, Madonna and Child


Guess what came out of my mailbox today? My copy of Bridges, the alumni magazine for Brigham Young University’s Kennedy Center for International Studies. And guess what I found on page 14? An article about the Tunisian Revolution. Written by me.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ve probably already heard what I have to say about Tunisia. But if you think it’s as cool as I think it is to see my name in print, you can access the online version here.

Looks Like There’s Still Room in Tunisia for One Last Dictator

Can I tell you again how awesome Tunisia is? At the Friends of Syria meeting on Monday, Moncef Marzouki, Tunisia’s interim president (chosen just recently in December by the Constituent Assembly, the interim parliament) played an active role. He suggested only half ironically that Russia back up its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by offering him asylum should he choose to abdicate. And today Marzouki put his money where his mouth is, and offered President Assad and his family political asylum in Tunisia itself.

Proffering what even Marzouki admitted were undeservedly soft terms for a dictator might seem odd, especially coming from a country so intimately acquainted with the pain of despotism. However, I don’t think anyone could possibly question Mr. Marzouki’s motives. An M.D. by profession, he is also a long-time human rights activist and admirer of Gandhi, and has spent his life studying transitions to democracy. Like most Tunisian political activists, he was arrested multiple times by Ben Ali’s regime, and spent many years in exile.

His offer of political asylum simply acknowledges the reality that President Assad’s safe departure is the best way to secure a democratic transition and future political and social stability for the Syrian people. After all, consider the contrast right now between Tunisia, whose former dictator-president lives on unpunished in peaceful luxury in Saudi Arabia, and still-troubled Libya or (heaven help us!) tortured Iraq, both of whose presidents met vengeful and violent ends on the heels of international intervention.

Mr. Marzouki is in the running for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. If he can get Mr. Assad to accept his invitation, I’d say he definitely deserves it. And who knows? Maybe an offer of hospitality from a fellow physician-president is just what the mad ophthalmologist needs to start his desperately needed early retirement.

Here’s hoping.

Pieces of Syria

This time last year I was in Tunisia, breathing the heady air of revolution, and observing curfew every night to stay out of gunfights between the army and the rogue police still loyal to ousted president Ben Ali. Egypt had followed close on Tunisia’s heels, and Qaddafi’s Libya was teetering. But as of yet, despite widespread unrest across the Middle East, Syria was still as silent as the grave.

Today in Tunisia, representatives of over seventy nations, (including the United States, but conspicuously missing China, Russia and Iran) are meeting to consider once again what can be done for the people of Syria. The party (known as “Friends of Syria”) was briefly crashed by several hundred Assad supporters who had been bussed to the hotel where the talks were being held. The infiltrators gained access to the hotel, but were eventually stopped at a security cordon.

Never having visited Tunisia while huge posters of Ben Ali’s face still graced every building, I couldn’t compare pre-revolution Tunisia to the euphoria of freedom I saw last year. But I could make a pretty good guess at what it must have been like. After all, the Syria I lived in was similarly plastered with posters of Assad, and the Syrian secret police were equally effective at stamping out even whispers of discontent.

Yesterday I opened my box of Syria memorabilia to see what pieces of Syria I had kept. It was a bit like opening a box of letters from a tragically-ended love affair. My heart did that same little double flip in the pit of my stomach. Among all the maps, postcards and brochures, here are a few of the things I found:

One fairly ornate green dress, which I fell in love with and bought at the Souq el-Hamidiyeh on one of my many outings there “to practice my Arabic.” Yes, I used to wear it sometimes afterward.

A gorgeous inlaid wood box; one of those arts like damask tablecloths for which Damascus is famous. I actually have several of these, of varying sizes and shapes.

One poster of Bashar al-Assad’s late father Hafez, wreathed in flowers and fireworks (dog-eared from having been hung in our apartment in Damascus when a dictator straight out of 1984 was still a novelty to me).

One small book of out-of-focus official photographs from a Mother’s Day visit to the border of the occupied Golan territory. If you can’t read it, a sample caption is the upper one: “Al – Golan hospital destructed by zionists. !!”

The offending keychain. He hasn’t really changed a bit, has he?

Journals I kept during my time in Syria. I am a sporadic journal-keeper, but I wrote almost every single day in Syria. I’m curiously reluctant to open these. I turned twenty-one in Syria, and living there was in many ways a rite of passage for me. It was the first time I’d ever been so far away from everything: my family, my friends, my country, and the way I had always understood the world. I found myself suddenly dropped into what was simultaneously a beautiful dream and a sinister nightmare, and I attacked it with all the passion of an uncontrollably romantic temperament. I was enamored of everything. I was in love with the whole country; the ancient streets, the beautiful colors of the souq, the incredibly hospitable people, the unresolved angst of the Golan, the ghostly ruins rising out of the desert, the attentive men who were always proposing marriage, and a whole way of life that was so foreign as to be irresistibly alluring.

Always in the background was that hint of danger; the stranger around the corner, the look of fear on a friend’s face when I said something insufficiently circumspect about the government, the security guards with machine guns everywhere, the feeling of being slowly suffocated by totalitarianism. I was both fascinated and repelled by the amount of control the government exercised over people’s minds. I was always in disagreement with myself about whether I could stand to live long-term under such severe repession. Because other than that, Syria was a perfectly beautiful place to live. My secret dream was to buy one of those crumbling houses in the old city in Damascus and slowly renovate it, like a sort of “under the Arabian sun.”

In fact, I’ve tried our whole marriage to convince Tony of how delightful it would be to live in Syria. The closest we’ve gotten is Tunisia. And in Tunisia, after that gloriously unexpected revolution, when I watched everyone I met taking in great draughts of their newly discovered freedom, of course I thought immediately of Syria. Of how much it would mean to so many Syrians to feel what the Tunisians felt on that incredible Friday when they filled Avenue Bourguiba and demanded that their president leave, and he went. And then they could talk, for the first time, really say everything they had wanted to say for a lifetime. They didn’t stop talking for weeks, and listening to them was like listening to the birds sing and the tigers roar on the first morning of the world.

There’s really nothing more to say, except that I hope beyond hope that something will come out of this meeting in Tunis today; that something will come out of something sometime soon that will bring peace, real peace, to Syria.


I absolutely cannot stop listening to this song, so I thought I’d share it with you. It is the official version, so you have to actually go to YouTube to watch it. But it’s worth it.


Fashionable Italian hippies recreating Woodstock in Amsterdam, and Laura Pausini by firelight. What’s not to love?

Tooth Fairy, Meet Santa Claus

My little girl is growing up. She lost her first tooth yesterday!

After this picture, she promptly lost the tooth again, this time literally. Even Grammy’s thorough sweep of the kitchen floor failed to unearth it. So I gave her a pearl to substitute for the tooth under her pillow. And I suggested lamely (how could I not?) that she write a letter to the Tooth Fairy explaining the reason for the substitution. She laughed.

“Mommy, that would just be writing a letter to you!”

True. I confess that I try no harder to perpetuate belief in the Tooth Fairy than in Santa Claus. I figure it’s enough of a job to teach my children all the true things I want them to know, without adding in false ones that will be found out later.

And sometimes I don’t even succeed at getting across the true stuff. The other day at lunch, Axa said she liked the piano piece I’ve been working on lately (my Mozart sonata). For homeschooling, Tony has been reading them a book about Mozart as a child, so he remarked that the sonata was written by “Wolfie.”

“Oh,” exclaimed Raj delightedly, “that means Wolfie is real!”

Sigh. Yes, Wolfie is real. But really, when I think about it, what about him marks him as any more obviously real than Gluck or Dr. Dolittle or Sebastian and Viola? Are my children under the impression that everything I tell them is a fantasy? I flew into a mini-panic, and today at lunch I decided I needed to revisit the last several hundred years of British history with Axa. “Canute is real,” I told her, “and so so is Ethelred the Unready.”  “Yes, I know,” she responded promptly, “but Poseidon isn’t.”

I breathed a sigh of relief. Well, no, Poseidon isn’t. Even though he did feature at the beginning of her history book, gifting the island of Britannia to his favorite son. I guess I haven’t completely failed at everything. Not quite.

But yeah, I’ll just stick to the facts when it comes to my kids, even if it ends up with them never experiencing the bliss it no doubt must be to believe in Santa. In my experience, it’s at least as magical for us all to give heart-felt gifts to one another, rather than writing greedy wish-lists to an eccentric old man whose entire raison d’être is to gratify our every material desire. I guess I’m a little old-fashioned, but to me a true gift is not an expected reward for being good, but a token of love to be graciously received.

Besides, I’d hate to end up in Ben Kenobi’s shoes . . .

Halloweening, Familia Style

When I was a kid, there was a minister who lived next door to us. He refused to pass out candy to trick-or-treaters. Instead, they got little Christian tracts on how evil and satanic the holiday was. At the time, I just thought he was weird. But I could do without Halloween now.

In fact, not seeing spider webs, creepy masks, and gravestones all over people’s yards and store windows every October was one of the things I loved about living abroad. Not to mention the fact that I didn’t have to either let my kids gorge themselves on candy for the entire first week of November or be the “mean” mom who takes it all away.

Unfortunately, this year we moved back to the U.S. just in time for Halloween. So I am faced with my Halloween dilemma.

I don’t know why this is, but Mormons in the U.S. really love Halloween. Most wards host a “trunk-or-treat” at which people decorate the trunks of their cars, park them in the church parking lot, and hand out candy to costumed children from them. The sugar orgy usually continues inside the church with additional games and treats. I remember being absolutely thrilled one year to win a hideous chocolate spider cake in the cake walk.

The “trunk-or-treat” concept was originally developed in response to all the concerns about Halloween safety. It was felt that it was important to provide a safe place for children to gorge on candy. However, since the church party was typically held a few days before Halloween, I knew many families who went trick-or-treating too, at least to the houses of family and friends. So in my candy-hating mother mind, trunk-or-treat actually makes the situation worse, not better.

We skipped the trunk-or-treat this year, but my kids got plastic gloves full of popcorn and candy corn today at church, and candy at library story hour yesterday. Still, I don’t want them to feel like they’re missing out on Halloween, so I’ve looked around for alternatives.

One of my Protestant friends recommended having a “Reformation party,” since Martin Luther nailed up his 99 theses on All Saints Eve. I love this idea, but I think I’ll wait until we’ve been through the Reformation in our history readings, and the children have some context.

Charlotte, a mom on one of the many homeschooling email lists to which I subscribe described her family’s Halloween tradition like this:

We live out in the country. We meet with two other families on a predetermined evening. The children, (5 in all), exchange gifts, (usually books or craft supplies). One of the moms, (the most organized of us 3), has our route planned. We visit 6 homes. The owners are aware that we are coming in advance. Two homes are widows, two are elderly and two are grandparents of our small group.

The children wear costumes and we spend 15-30 minutes at each stop. Some offer candy, others homemade treats, (safe because we’ve known these people our entire lives). One stop always serves us supper, another always has cake and ice cream for dessert. Sometimes, an activity has been planned at a particular stop. The children often have made drawings/ cards, or have picked bouquets of wildflowers to leave.

This has been a wonderful outreach. One widow in particular looks forward to our visit all year. She lives miles from town and can’t drive and feels isolated I’m sure. Before us, she never had trick-or-treaters because she lives on an untraveled dirt road. She loves decorating her porch and entryway for the children.

I loved her idea of turning Halloween into a service, family, and community outreach evening. Maybe sometime I’ll get that organized.

In the meantime, what we have planned is a family Halloween party with Grammy and Pampa. We’ll carve our pumpkins, bob for apples, decorate (healthy) cookies (with my honey-cream cheese frosting, nuts, dried fruit, etc.), and play games.

Yeah, I’m a spoilsport. At least it only happens once a year.

photo credits:

1. Our newlywed Halloween, back before I had kids and became such a wet blanket. If you look closely, you’ll see that the earring on Tony’s pirate pumpkin is his wedding ring.

2. My awesome brother Samuel, who when his firstborn son arrives in January will most likely be naming him Yoda.

Mormons and Muslims

I blogged today over at Times & Seasons about what Mormons and Muslims have in common. Pop on over and have a read:

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Election Day in Tunisia

Words really can’t express how happy I feel for Tunisia and her people today. It has been ten eventful months since Ben Ali left the country, and most of that time I spent in Tunisia, breathing the heady air of new democracy and marvelling at events that seem almost miraculous, and continue to reverberate around the world.

Today brought to first fruition the promise of the Tunisian people’s revolutionary dream. The country voted today to elect a 217-member assembly, which has as its primary purpose drafting a new constitution. The body will also choose a new interim government and set dates for parliamentary and presidential elections, setting Tunisia firmly on the path toward a stable democratic future.

I am in awe of the Tunisian people for accomplishing this, and so honored to have spent the months after the revolution as a guest in their beautiful country. I watched them day after day, week after week, as they kept close tabs on their slippery interim government, continuing to protest and demand change as necessary, often facing batons and bullets but never backing down.

Today their patience, determination and heroism were vindicated as they participated in what for most was the first real election they had ever experienced. Exceeding even wildly optimistic expectations, voter turnout reportedly came in at over 90%. The nearly universal blue-inked fingers today were a badge of honor, a tangible symbol of the courage and solidarity that have brought Tunisia to this historic moment.

Amid the bloody carnage of Qaddafi’s demise, Libya’s future continues to be uncertain. Egypt’s military power base remains difficult to dislodge. Syria’s peaceful revolutionaries press on despite horrifying casualties and crippling sanctions. But Tunisia shines steadfastly as a beacon of hope and triumph for a region and world that desperately needs to believe that ideals are worth something, and freedom and justice are not hazy pipe dreams, but attainable goals.

May they continue to achieve success in their noble endeavor, and may the new dawn they have ushered in spread its rays far and wide until the light of hope and freedom shines with equal brightness on the whole Middle East and all the world.