Strength in What Remains — The Remarkable Story of Someone Who Fled Burundi’s Genocide and Then Returned to Help Rebuild

Tracy Kidder is a superb writer with a gift for digging into interesting stories and making them even more interesting. His 2009 Strength in What Remains embodies just such an effort. Deogratias (Deo) Niyizonkiza was a medical student in Burundi when he desperately fled the genocide that had erupted. Kidder tells the story of that harrowing escape, followed by some very difficult days after Deo managed to get to New York City, where he had virtually no money, no friends and a big language barrier. The story of how Deo made his way in the United States is sobering. His decidedly mixed and sometimes resentful reactions to the people who went many extra miles to help him provide an instructive slant on the immigrant experience.

Apart from Deo’s own story, Strength in What Remains tells the story of Burundi’s genocide, which actually lasted many years longer than the better known Rwanda genocide. Spoiler alert, it started when the Belgians left their colonies in a such mess as to virtually ensure disaster.

The graphic details and the staggering numbers of the murders in Burundi are difficult to grasp, but Deo’s experience brings us so much closer because Kidder reports what happened through Deo’s personal experience. He saw horrific murders and mutilations; his life and education were completely disrupted; he had no idea what had happened to his family and had every reason to fear the worst; and then he was miraculously transported to New York City. He was alive but homeless in New York, and there is little to no mention of any social service organizations set up to help him. The good news is that he got out of Burundi before he was killed, and he was able to get into the United States in a less xenophobic period. The bad news is that this shattered homeless man endured his own hell here until enough people reached out to help. This story wouldn’t have ended as well as it did if Deo had been less intelligent or less resilient and resourceful.

Even more remarkable is what Deo determined to do with his life. He got an education and he went back to Burundi to help his parents and help his community. No one can ever recover from the trauma he endured, but his determination to take back his own life and help others is absolutely heroic.

This is an important story, well told, and I highly recommend it.

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Gender in Afghanistan: The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg

Jenny Nordberg’s The Underground Girls of Kabul — In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan covers new ground for many of us. Nordberg, a Swedish author now based in New York, was interviewing a woman politician in Afghanistan when she more or less stumbled upon the practice of bacha posh. Bacha posh is the practice of raising girls as boys during all or part of their childhood. Nordberg was so surprised about the existence of this practice, that she started to investigate.

Even getting women to speak with her through her interpreters was a major challenge, but gradually Nordberg learned that bacha posh wasn’t particularly unusual or disfavored in male-dominated societies where having a boy in the family was considered absolutely crucial. The Underground Girls of Kabul explores these reasons but it also devotes considerable attention to the girls who were or are being raised as boys. As children, most of the girls seemed pretty happy about it because of the freedom and status they gained as boys. Switching back to being a female around the time of puberty was often more problematic, and Nordberg talk to some very unhappy and defiant women who rebelled against the notion of going back to being female.

All of this makes for a very interesting book that has a reach far behind the individual stories of the individuals who are interviewed. I recommend it.

Moving Memoir by the Black Female Transplant Surgeon

Velma Scantlebury has written an important book that covers a lot of the history of organ transplantation and underscores the difficulty of surgical training, particularly for black women. Beyond Every Wall –Becoming the First Black Female Transplantation Surgeon is a masterful and thoughtful self-published memoir, that is easily purchased on line. It is written in a series of reflections or essays, which is a good way to capture a rich, busy life.

CAVEAT: Velma Scantlebury is a long-time friend; my husband worked and trained with her in Pittsburgh, so the environment she describes is very familiar. I have always been in awe of her accomplishments and perseverance, but I can also hear her laugh as I read the book. If nothing else, Dr. Scantlebury demonstrates that it is possible to be a kind, warm and funny person and a world class surgeon in a pressure cooker environment.

This is the story of a strong woman who was raised by parents who pushed education and instilled a formidable work ethic and well-founded self-confidence. Dr. Scantlebury met barriers every step of the way, and yet she pushed on. Her willingness to admit that everything wasn’t always easy and that she didn’t always succeed at everything the first time is heartening and realistic. She is an inspiration for everyone and her honesty takes away some of the mystique of innate infallibility that some surgeons have been known to cultivate.

But wait, Dr. Scantlebury had two daughters in the middle of all this. My guess is she will never catch up on all the sleep she lost, particularly during their early years! Truthfully, the United States isn’t set up to accommodate or assist professional women who decide to have children and keep working. Nonetheless Dr. Scantlebury maintained her own course. That’s what professional working mothers do, in spite of the difficulties, and it’s about time they stop being judged adversely for it. For goodness sakes, lend a hand!

And then there is the issue of race. It wasn’t enough that Dr. Scantlebury worked tremendously hard, excelled at her profession and raised two daughter. She is black, and her book describes the pressure of dealing with racial prejudice and mean, stupid people, while at the same time raising a family and working insane hours in a high risk profession. She knows it wasn’t an even playing field — she trained with a lot of white men whose professional journeys had frequently benefited from privilege. Training to be a transplant surgeon isn’t easy for anyone, but Dr. Scantlebury’s race and sex presented inordinate and reprehensible obstacles. I’m in awe of her resilience and perseverance in sticking with it and getting where she wanted to go.

At the same time Dr. Scantlebury’s story is troubling, because she shouldn’t have had to face all these barriers. Her talent should have been recognized and nurtured from day one. Instead, she and too many women and people of color are told, explicitly or not, that they really don’t belong in their chosen profession and that they should do something that makes other people more comfortable. Whatever happened to helping children and young people develop and attain their goals? It is painful to think about all the girls and children of color who don’t push past these barriers. They lose out, and the world loses out because they may never get to contribute.

Dr. Scantlebury makes a big point of the mentors who helped her during her career and insists upon the obligation to mentor others. Throughout her career, she has reached out to help other women, and she’s clearly found it mutually beneficial. With the inspiration and concrete mentoring Dr. Scantlebury and others provide, let’s make sure women of color get the opportunities they deserve.

Robert Capa’s Slightly out of Focus: A Captivating Photographer’s Memoir of World War II

Robert Capa’s Slightly Out of Focus is absolutely one of the best war memoirs I’ve ever read. Capa, was born in Hungary in 1913 and then killed by stepping on a mine in Vietnam in 1954. In between, he made a career as a war photographer. Slightly Out of Focus covers Capa’s experiences before and during World War II. As an Hungarian Jew, he was basically stateless, but nonetheless managed to get to the United States and then got an American magazine to send him to London to photograph the war. Capa was in North Africa and Italy, and then landed with the first troops in Normandy on D Day. His book has astonishing photographs, but it also recounts his adventures. Capa makes cutting through all the American and British red tape to get to the war zones sound almost as daunting as the War itself. As if his own story weren’t amazing enough, Capa’s tales include cameos by Ernest Hemingway, and Ernie Pyle, among others. Robert Capa is an amazing raconteur who writes with tremendous brio, but he also zeroes in on the terrors of the war and demonstrates a profound understanding of the horror and waste. You really need to read this book.

Incidentally Robert Capa was one of the people featured in Katie Marton’s 2006, The Great Escape — Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World, which is another great book.

The Marshal at the Villa Torrini, An Excellent Florentine Mystery by Magdalen Nabb

Magdalen Nabb wrote an excellent series of mysteries set in Florence and featuring Marshal Guarnaccia. The Marshal at the Villa Torrini is one of her best. Her police detective Marshal Guarnaccia is not suave and sophisticated, and he doesn’t always have all that much confidence in himself, all of which makes following along as he unravels odd clues and interviews an eccentric and highly diverse cast of witnesses a true pleasure. He is a nice, occasionally ornery guy with a purposeful, sensitive way of dealing with his witnesses. He is a bit of an outsider himself as he has transferred to Florence from Sicily.

So many mysteries present a terrific urgency in finding the killer and the prevention of further mayhem as bodies pile up. The Marshal at the Villa Torrini presents a calmer, more patient approach. There is one murder to solve, and Guarnaccia goes about his business thoughtfully as he waits for evidence to be collected and figures out how he can nail the culprit. He also has a brand new side kick who turns out be pretty adorable.

The Marshall at the Villa Torrini is not a comic mystery, but it offers a lot of well-placed humor. Florence is the perfect setting. Nabb’s constant references to dramatic and oppressive weather, as well as to a more mundane local court proceeding really add flavor and context. Guarnaccia’s round of witness interviews takes the reader all around Florence and offers a wonderful and often comic mix of personalities and circumstances. Nabb also gets high marks for presenting a new and different cause of death!

Magdalen Nabb was born in England and lived in Florence. She died in 2007, and left a legacy of some very fine books. They are concise, moving and highly intelligent.

Apple of My Eye by Helene Hanff

It’s 10 degrees outside, and the temperature is still plunging, but Helene Hanff’s wondrous and adoring Apple of My Eye makes me want to go outside and start exploring every nook and cranny of New York City right now. If Hanff’s name sounds familiar, it is probably because she was also the author of 84, Charing Cross Road, also a great book.

Apple of My Eye may not persuade everyone to love Manhattan, but Hanff paints a beautiful, idiosyncratic portrait of my favorite city, warts and all, during a time when the New York ran out of money and the rest of the country, and Gerald Ford in particular, told New York to go to hell.

TIME OUT TO PLUG A NEW BOOKSTORE. Apple of My Eye took me by surprise as I was checking out Book Monster, a fine new used book store in Santa Monica. Like the best used books stores, Book Monster’s layout is completely inviting and encourages wonderfully random browsing. The travel books alone were worth the trip! Who knew I’d find my favorite book about New York while browsing in Santa Monica?

The premise of Apple of My Eye is that Hanff was commissioned to write the copy for a book of photographs of Manhattan. Determined to write a truly helpful book for tourists to the city, Hanff sets out with her long-time friend Patsy to explore Manhattan in the mid 1970’s, when New York City as a whole was in a state of financial collapse. This book is about their adventures. There was a lot more crime and many more things were falling apart in the 1970’s than is the case now. Acknowledging these issues, Hanff is determined to learn as much as possible about the parts of New York that she thinks tourists ought to see. Along the way, Hanff discovers and rediscovers an impressive array of New York neighborhoods, and is always ready to stop and really look at what is her around her.

Hanff lives on the Upper East Side, and her friend Patsy lives on the Upper West Side (my own personal nirvana). The two happily debate the relative merits of these two meccas — of course some of the traditional distinctions are waning as the Upper West Side keeps replacing old, charming and sometimes dilapidated brownstones with scores of fancy high rises. I might argue that the Upper West Side’s residents have changed far less than their architecture.

Helene Hanff and Patsy have obviously known each other for a long time, and together they come up with lists of places to see and neighborhoods to explore. Hanff and Patsy combine high degrees of inquisitiveness with a determination to see and appreciate as much as possible. Undaunted by getting lost (in a pre-IPhone era) and often getting very hungry, hot and footsore, they are determined to do a thorough job of checking out places tourists to New York should see. The two women are both very very opinionated about how New York should be — Hanff has been boycotting the Metropolitan Museum of Art in protest over its expansion into Central Park — and yet they can be persuaded to alter their initial perceptions. They really want to point tourists to good places and they are open to checking everything out.

New York keeps changing. In addition to the financial crisis of the 1970’s, Hanff writes about the World Trade Center just as the Twin Towers were opening, the newly opened sections of the Metropolitan Museum, the newly opened and very dusty Ellis Island and so much more. It was also a time when Central Park was considered pretty dangerous except on the weekends. Apple of My Eye made me want to explore everything. Now of course we have Google and Google Maps, so theoretically we shouldn’t get lost as often and we can look up the details on anything of interest. That’s a good thing in many ways, but I have to wonder about how many interesting things I may have missed because I was so focused on my phone that I neglected to look around.

For those of us who lived in Manhattan during the late 70’s and 80’s and have returned to live there only recently, Hanff’s book offers the best kind of nostalgia and also the recognition that change will continue to happen. Some change will be good, and some will suck. We can fight it or embrace it, but New York is going to keep on changing. And if we are confused or want to know more, we can look it up on line.

This is a great book and stands on its own, regardless of your interest in New York. Having said that, for me Manhattan has got to Beowulf of the best backdrops a book could ever possess.

The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Haddish

Tiffany Haddish has written a moving, wild and often funny memoir about her very tough upbringing and her adventures as a stand up comedian. The tone is wild and very funny. Her young life was a mess, and she had to teach herself how to lead the life she deserved on the fly. Her self-awareness of her naïveté is a constant theme of the book. She looks back with amazing insightful and humor and possesses a loony, careening sort of resilience. I love her ability to acknowledge a poor performance or whatever and move on.

The book’s serious moments are heartbreaking. Haddish tells of an unstable, abusive childhood. She acknowledges her horrible experiences and continues with her story. Epic coping skills are in play here. She only later realizes all the things that should not have happened to her. As if we needed another example, her is yet another young woman who puts up with all kind of cruelty and abuse for quite awhile before she sees her abusers for who they really are.

The story zings from here to there, but somehow Haddish finds her way to comedy — where she also meets abusive men. She also becomes successful and then has to cope with the pressures and expectations that brings. Much of it is pretty hilarious. Throughout this very good book, Haddish skillfully mixes stories of outrageous abuse with funny stories about just about everything. She also takes the time to acknowledge people who helped her along the way. This is definitely a cases of some nice, supportive people being in the right place at the right time for her. Thank goodness!

This is a very enjoyable, hilarious and thoughtful book.

“Widows” is a Must-See Movie!

“Widows” is a fierce, compelling film. You have to see it! Once again Viola Davis shows she is incomparable. I love her fierceness and ingenuity. The film tells the story of how a group of women react to being widowed after their criminal husbands get killed in a heist gone wrong. They don’t have time to mourn; they think fast and get creative and bold. They don’t know each other and have no particularly good reason to trust each other, but they work together for lack of a better alternative. It is fun to watch their brand of steel and ingenuity.

This is a fast moving, complex tale featuring stunning acting. The entire cast is brilliant, but I keep thinking of Viola Davis. Her mixture of passion, toughness and brains drives the movie and maintains the tension and suspense.

This movie should be one of the hits of the year, so please support it!

A Testament of Modern Slavery by Nadia Murad, Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize

Nadia Murad has written an important and moving book, The Last Girl, and My Fight Against the Islamic State. Murad is a Yazidi. (Yazidis are a Kurdish religious minority in Iraq.) Yazidis were targeted by the Islamic State, which demolished Murad’s village and executed many of the people who lived there. Nadia Murad and other young women of her village were captured and brutally used as sex slaves. Murad managed to escape, worked to help victims and wrote this book. She is also the co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize this year, although the lack of journalistic recognition of her achievements and the Peace Prize is a sad measure of the world’s concern about sex slavery.

This is an excellent book about an horrific subject. It is difficult to read, although I found that the book’s overall design helped. First, Murad tells us about her childhood and what it was like to grow up in a large family in a Yazidi village. The second part is the hardest to bear — the war comes, Murad’s family is decimated, she is captured and she becomes a sex slave. Murad details her multiple rapes and the viciousness of her captors. This happened, and the world needs to know the details. It’s not just another news story. She is bearing witness, and we should, too. Third and finally, there is the dramatic story of her escape and new life. She has survived, and she is strong.

Reading The Last Girl is important, because it forces us to confront exactly what sex slavery means to its victims and to focus on the men who elect to engage in it. These aren’t just a few perverts. In this book alone, scores of men actively and sadistically participated. The news assures us these are not isolated incidents. Whatever the so-called religious “justification,” these men hated women and enjoyed raping them. Compounding the venality were the men and women who knew exactly what was going on and had no problem with it. Then there were the people who just turned away and pretended it wasn’t happening. Murad is infuriated with the men and women who knew and failed to do anything about it. She acknowledges that they were likely afraid, but at some level they were willing to let this happen, and she doesn’t let them off the hook.

We need to remember that sex slavery happens because the world lets it happen. Sadly there will never be a shortage of men willing to abuse women in the most appalling ways. With each insult and cruelty that passes without comment, these men are empowered. And this isn’t just a problem in other countries. Men who bully and abuse women are part of the continuum, and we need to be vigilant, speak out and take action. We honor Nadia Murad and other victims by reading their stories and doing whatever we can to stop this horrific abuse.

Bill Cunningham Makes Fashion so Much Fun!

This is a fantastic book, and I loved it!

Bill Cunningham, Jr. (1929-2016), was a remarkably talented fashion photographer for the New York Times. He was probably best known, at least recently, for the wonderful pictures he took as he rode around New York City on a bicycle, even into his eighties. His work was so fresh and wonderful that he was designated a “living landmark.”

As it happens, Cunningham led a remarkable life long before he took the photography gig. Fashion Climbing – A Memoir with Photographs is the book Cunningham wrote about his exuberant life as a young man. The book was only discovered and published after Cunningham’s death, and that somehow adds to its charm.

Fashion Climbing is much more than a fashion story. Cunningham has written a thoughtful, generous and buoyant story. He was a duck out of water as a youth in Boston, and his family was utterly unsupportive and hostile. He acknowledges the sadness of this, and then goes on to lead a fantastic life, unhampered by his frequent poverty and the decline of the millinery business. That’s right; he first became known as a highly inventive hat designer

Sometimes you read about an interesting character. You love the book but you are also really happy that never actually encountered that person, because he or she sounds distinctly unpleasant and not nice. Well, this is a different story. I would have loved to have known Bill Cunningham! His creativity and irrepressibly positive attitude are absolutely captivating. The kindness and generosity of his story just made me feel good and intrigued about what would happen next. I really hope there is an as yet undiscovered sequel for the rest of his life.

This is a great book, and I highly recommend it for everyone. This is not just for fashionistas and photography buffs.