A Rift in Time – Raja Shehadeh

Posted in Biography, non-fiction, Travel Writing on March 17th, 2011 by admin – 2 Comments

I don’t do politics….perhaps a lifetime in Northern Ireland has been partly responsible for that!   My faint knowledge of the Middle East conflict is restricted to vague images of Yasser Arafat and the 80s trend of wearing that little tassled scarf – oh and I can also recognise the Palestinian and Israeli flags as they are frequently flown in Nationalist and Loyalist areas, dare I say, in order to wind each other up…

So, it was with slight trepidation that I picked up A Rift in Time, Raj Shehadeh’s memoir of his great-uncle Najib Nassar.  Raj is a prominent Palestinian lawyer and human rights activist.  He lives in Ramallah on the West Bank, currently under military occupation by Israel.  In this book, he retraces his uncle’s footsteps during his time on the run from the Ottoman authorities between 1915 and 1918.  Najib came under suspicion of espionage and treasonable activities as he voiced opposition to the Ottoman participation in World War I and spent three years in hiding in different locations, depending on the generosity of friends and foes alike.

Raj’s present day  journey, following in his uncle’s footsteps,  lacks the fluidity of Najib’s adventures, given that he is faced with border restrictions, army checkpoints and other physical obstructions.  He finds the landscape ravaged by the intensive farming favoured by the Israeli settlers.  Villages which welcomed and sheltered Najib back in the 1900s are now wiped off the map, having been razed to the ground in 1948. 

I found it useful to have a map of the area at my side especially when Shehadeh was moving through different areas, Haifa, Ramallah, Jericho, Tyre, Beirut, the Jordan Valley as it made it easier to follow his journey and that of Najib.  As a result I had a better understanding of the shifting borders and how the political landscape has changed although I remain bewildered as to how around 750,000 Palestinians became refugees and were not allowed to return to their homes.  Admittedly, Shehadeh’s account has a habit of  jumping from one century to another, from one country to another and it can be difficult to keep track of things but then we are dealing with a very complicated situation. 

Here is a man who yearns for political agreement achieved by peaceful means and he recognises that the past is important and we can draw lessons from it, but we must also put the past behind us and strive for an egalitarian society.

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Mennonite in a Little Black Dress – Rhoda Janzen

Posted in Biography, non-fiction on March 13th, 2011 by admin – 4 Comments

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home

Forty-something American/Canadian Rhoda Janzen has had a terrible time of it. Her wonderful, gorgeous husband has left her for for a guy called Bob who he met on and her troubles multiply as, in the same week, she is hospitalized following a serious road accident. Incapacitated, she decides to return to the bosom of her Mennonite family to lick her wounds.

So far so good, I am fascinated by the lifestyle of faith groups such as the Amish and Mennonites and I was eagerly anticipating how Rhoda, a self-proclaimed “bad” Mennonite and 21st Century girl would fit back into this conservative Christian community. However….what I got instead was more like a marathon stint by a stand-up comedian – the “pee-bag” joke was funny the first time I read it but then it cropped up again, and again, and again.. Yes, it’s good to be self-deprecating in a world which sometimes encourages us to wallow in self-pity but after a while it just becomes irksome and there’s surely only so many custard pies you can throw in the face of quirky family and friends before the humour fizzles out.

I would have enjoyed this more if it hadn’t been a book – odd to say in the midst of a book review, I know. Janzen tells us that friends encouraged her to write the book after receiving funny e-mails from her about her return to the Mennonite community. Indeed it is like a series of rambling e-mails except we don’t have the benefit of dates to aid our navigation through the jumble of anecdotes which would have been much better suited to blog posts or a weekly newspaper column. Janzen jumps about through time and space at a pace which would give Captain Kirk a run for his money. I wanted to know more about how she felt, not hear another tale about her mother’s flatulence! Oh and there’s a potted history of Mennonites and a few recipes from her Mom tacked on at the end – something for all the family!

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Cry Down-River by John Pepper

Posted in Biography on February 16th, 2011 by admin – Be the first to comment

Published on 14th February 2011 by Quartet Books, Cry Down-River is not your typical Valentine book even though it concerns one man’s love for a women, a love which spans decades.  Indeed, initially, I thought I was reading a work of fiction, given the literary quality of the writing and the story itself.

Cry Down-River is John Pepper’s hymn of love to Ruth, the love of his life, who meets a tragic end, drowning after her car is swept off a flooded road.  Ironically, Ruth thought she had drowned in a previous life and was, as a result, terrified of water all her life, refusing to go beyond paddling when on holiday.  The book takes the form of a letter from John to Ruth, a 171 page letter which brings us into their, at times, turbulent relationship.

OF THE EIGHTEEN YEARS , one month and thirteen days you and I were together, just over a hundred days only, three and a half months, were spent in unalloyed partnership.  The rest of the time we were in a complex weave of friendship, fall-out, separation, pining, rage, the mutual extending of succour and spiritual fellowship.

So, an unconventional relationship which is examined here in a searingly honest way, seeing life warts and all, revelling in both the physical and the philosophical.  John stayed “true” to Ruth even when she hitched up with other partners and just before her death they were probably at the zenith of their relationship, both having faced their demons and settled into a quiet happiness together.  Even so, their story is not one which wallows in melancholia, rather it ends up as an extremely uplifting account of love which the reader feels privileged to share.

Whilst reading Cry Down-River, I felt reminded of Diana Athill’s Somewhere Towards the End, mainly due to the wit and frankness of  the author and because, like Diana, I feel he doesn’t really care much about what others think although he doesn’t go out of his way to hurt anyone.  As well as insights into his relationship with Ruth, we learn about John’s view of the world as a trained counsellor, psychotherapist and meditation tutor.  Not for the prudish, this is a very special story with its very own personality and as a reader, I felt very privileged to share John and Ruth’s story.

My thanks to Gavin from Quartet Books for sending me a copy of this book.

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Review – The Bonfire of Berlin by Helga Schneider

Posted in Biography on September 14th, 2010 by admin – 4 Comments

I think this is the first book I’ve read about World War II which is told from the perspective of a German Christian and this is the first time I have read anything about the devastation of Berlin and the Russian invasion.  Helga Schneider recalls her childhood in Germany from 1941 to 1947, warts and all - her mother abandons her and her younger brother to devote herself to the Nazi cause, becoming a guard at Auschwitz.  Helga’s father remarries and when he is away at the front, the stepmother shows her true archetypal evil nature and Helga is sent off to a variety of institutions whilst her brother Peter is mollycoddled and brought up to be a “proper” German complete with adoration of the Fuhrer.

At times this autobiography is in danger of straying into misery-memoir territory but it is saved by keenly observed accounts of time spent in the cramped, fetid air raid shelters, of the ordinary Berliners’ frustrations with the Nazis’ actions, of their intense terror of the SS and how good folk did  nothing in striving for self-preservation.  At one stage Helga meets Hitler face to face in his bunker and the tension is palpable.  Likewise the arrival of Russian troops propagates terror amongst the population as the rumour mill goes overboard with tales of brutality.

This is a short, accessible read, just over 200 pages - not the best written admittedly but it has given me an insight into the plight of ordinary Berliners during and after the war.  I gather that the author attempted reconciliation with her mother in the 1970s but the happy ending was not to be – there is another book Let Me Go which details her mother’s story and her lack of remorse for her SS activities.

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Review – Where are you Really From? – Tim Brannigan

Posted in Biography on June 11th, 2010 by admin – 7 Comments

What a weird and wonderful tale!  Born as a result of an affair between a white republican Belfast woman and a black doctor from Ghana, Tim Brannigan is initially reared in a baby home as the scandal for his mother and her existing family would have been insurmountable.  This entire memoir is told in a very matter fact way which perhaps reveals Tim’s present day talents as a journalist.

I was born on Tuesday 10 May 1966.  I died the same day…My mother had managed to create not so much a phantom pregnancy but rather a phantom death”.

Such lack of mawkishness sets the tone for the reader as we witness a series of almost soaplike moments which permeate Brannigan’s life.  Incredibly, when he turns one year old, his mother Peggy decides to adopt him but keeps the secret of his parentage to herself, for now…  Brought up in a close knit Nationalist family in West Belfast, he is in limbo – suffering racial abuse from both republicans and the British Army.   Such confusion of identity is exacerbated by the unpredictability of his relationship with his mother and her decision not to tell him the truth about his parentage until he is 20 years old.

I found this memoir fascinating for many reasons, firstly it has no sense of misery or angst – Tim tells it as it is, without resorting to typical misery-memoir schmaltz.   Also, it opens a window on events during the height of the Troubles when I, myself was a similar age to the author – the difference being that I was sequestered in a tiny village, far removed from the reality of daily violence.  It certainly gives greater insight into what it must have been like to live at the “frontline”.

Brannigan ends up serving a 5 year prison sentence in H Block as a Republican prisoner even though he wasn’t actually a member of the IRA and was a victim of circumstances.  Again he doesn’t indulge in self pity when he relates events during his time in prison and his portrayal of the tightly organised structure and routine imposed by IRA Commanding Officers on each wing is frankly fascinating.  Of course, one cannot expect complete objectivity – hence the ever so slightly patronising attitude towards the Loyalist prisoners with emphasis on their lack of organisation and lack of academic prowess when compared with the Nationalist inmates – one almost hears the author tittering in the background – however such tongue in cheek moments are relatively rare and it’s soon back to the business in hand and the quest for self awareness.

This is a book primarily about Tim and his search for his roots, his father being the missing link.  Their “reunion”, like other landmark events in this memoir, is starkly presented.  Where are you Really From? was a pleasant surprise for me as I usually shy away from “local” books and anything referring to the Troubles but his story transcends the parochial limits of Northern Ireland and is a testament to Tim’s stoicism and the strength of his bond with his Mum.  Don’t shy away from it, categorising it as political diatribe when it has more in common with human endurance.

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