An Iranian Woman’s Memoir and the Battle against the Compulsory Hijab

In her passionate memoir, The Wind in My Hair – My Fight for Freedom in Modern Iran, Masih Alinejad lays out her feelings about the war against women in Iran and recounts her efforts to fight it. Alinejad is a journalist, blogger and broadcaster, as well as the founder of the My Stealthy Freedom movement.

This book has many things going for it. Alinejad’s recounting of her childhood and teenage years is like nothing a Westerner could imagine. Her family is conservative; her father supports the repressive regime. She rebels. Alinejad spends some time in jail as a result of a youthful protest journal. In short order she finds she is pregnant, marries the baby’s father, has a son and then gets divorced, which results in her loss of the custody of her son. In many ways all this drama is liberating — society already regards her as a hopeless pariah, so why not speak and do what she wants to do?

Alinejad is sort of a hustler, in the best sense of the word. Lacking even a high school diploma, she quickly learns how to make a living and become a successful writer, who is basically just this side of going to prison for her provocative columns. Along the way, she meets many of the politicians who are running Iran. Ultimately, she flees Iran, one step ahead of being arrested. Landing in Britain, she is scarcely a helpless refugee. She is more of a frenetic whirlwind: she earns a university degree, she raises her son once he joins her, she writes for various outlets, blogs, does radio programs and serves as a provocative cheerleader for protest within Iran. Indeed, her story illustrates the power of Facebook and social media, in general. When no one is buying her material, she blogs and posts. Basically she drives the regime in Iran crazy.

For Alinejad, Iran’s compulsory hijab policy becomes the catalyst for protest. She lays out very clearly the ways in which Iran keeps women down and encourages women in Iran to protest. She also devotes a lot of time to tracking and reporting on the tortures and deaths of protestors, so that these people are not forgotten. She also consistently supports the choice of women like her mother who want to wear the hijab. In fact her respect for her mother and her mother’s savvy approach to life grounds Alinejad.

I loved this book, because it sets out, with all its warts and a certain amount of confusion, how this impassioned, articulate woman feels about Iran and what it is doing to its people. Alinejad clearly falls into the category of people who aren’t constrained by social norms or the perils of non-compliance. She is comfortable setting her own path. At times that may seem selfish or even annoying and there is the exile’s perennial dilemma of urging those still in her country to engage in political action and thereby endanger themselves. She is aware of these things, but moves on and sees herself as a source of inspiration for people in Iran. She misses Iran and her family and has no expectation of returning any time soon.

I recommend this book because it tells a great story and it provides a passionate primary source for what has gone on in Iran.

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The World Continues to Exist Only by the Virtue of a Few Righteous People

Aharon Appelfeld’s The Story of a Life recounts his experiences as a child survivor of the Holocaust and then examines his adult reflections upon the experience and upon the family he lost. This is a beautiful book that slowly examines how the author recalls his experiences and what memory has come to mean to him.

Appelfeld’s Holocaust began at the age of 7 when he and his parents entered the ghetto in Czernowitz, Romania. His mother was murdered, and then he and his father embarked upon a long, forced march to a camp. Ultimately, Appelfeld lost his father and escaped front he camp. He somehow survived the war, made his way to Italy and then arrived in Israel, on his own at the age of 14. He stayed in Israel where he had a very successful writing career until he died earlier this year (January 14, 2018).

The Story of a Life is not Appelfeld’s first book about the Holocaust and his experiences. Post war, he was criticized for not simply laying down the facts. His somewhat mystical approach apparently drew considerable criticism. I found Appelfeld’s personal approach very moving and understandable on an emotional level. Truly there is a place for an unlimited number of approaches to the Holocaust. The Story of a Life enhances our understanding and provides a framework for how a survivor might live with the loss and how he might choose to remember it and think about it. At some level, what has happened has to encompass more than unspeakable, horrible facts and cruelties.

Several things stand out in this memoir. Appelfeld profound losses included the loss o of education. He was on his own and had no education from the time he was 7 until he landed in Israel at 14. His experiences in the early days of Israel were a mixed bag. His time in the youth village and tending to fruit trees seemed to have helped with his healing process. He also benefited form the kindness and attention of at least one established Israeli writer and a nurturing tutelage of a professor of Yiddish. On the other hand, he was alone and found the new Israelis often abrupt and uncaring.

There is little bitterness in this book. Appelfeld has moved on to where he recognizes and treasures the kindnesses, big and small, he has received in his life. According to his own survey and reckoning, “every person I knew who was saved during the war was saved solely by the grace of someone who, at a time of great danger, extended a hand to him.” Ultimately, Appelfeld feels immense gratitude for how he has been able to recover “the world I had left behind.”

Remarkably, Appelfeld and his father were reunited in Israel after the war, long after Appelfeld had thought his father was dead. Appelfeld never felt able to write about that wonderful experience, and it seems fitting for him to treasure it and hold it dear.

I can’t recommend this book enough. It is short, but deserves a slow, careful read.

In this book, Appelfeld writes about his bewilderment at the absence of his parents and the difficulties and cruelties he suffered while avoiding capture. One of his losses was that of education. His stopped at First Grade, and he got no other education until he reached Israel after the war. His struggles to learn Hebrew and write in that language

Bound Feet & Western Dress by Pang-Mei Natasha Chang

Pang-Mei Natasha Chang has written a very moving book about the astonishing life of her great aunt Chang Yu-i. Yu-i was born to a prosperous family in China in 1900, the year of the Boxer Rebellion. Fortunately, before she died in New York City in 1989, at the age of 88, Yu-i told her story to her great-niece, the author of this book.

I’ll refrain from spoiling the story for readers who hope to read this book. Hopefully it is enough to say that Yu-i’s story and her challenges were unique. The author does an excellent job of interviewing Yu-i and received thoughtful and generally unsentimental answers about her personal saga, but I have been left with hundreds of questions. I feel the need to know more about Yu-i. Why did she do something? What was she thinking? I really need to know what made Yu-i tick.

The twentieth century was a tough time for China and for all the Chinese who emigrated. Given her sheltered upbringing, Yu-i would seem to have been far less prepared than most to meet the challenges she faced, but in fact she prospered. Although political events were obviously swirling all around Yu-i during this turbulent period, but her story focuses more on her personal challenges and the social system into which she was born.

This lovely book is further enriched by relatively brief references to the author’s own life story. As Chang tells her great aunt’s story, she also reveals aspects of her own life, including the family pressure she felt growing up, as well as the racial slurs she endured. Her life lacks the drama of her great aunt’s life, but this book is a testament to her own upbringing and her struggles to find the right career path.

It is worth noting that I have written this review just a few hours before my book club meets to discuss it. It will be fun to discuss it this evening without worrying about spoiler alerts!

Dance to the Piper — Agnes DeMille’s Remarkable Account of How She Invented Herself as a Unique Dancer and Choreographer

Agnes DeMille, the amazing choreographer of Oklahoma, Rodeo and many other ballets and dances, wrote a number of memoirs, the first of which is Dance to the Piper. In this first installment of the story of her life, DeMille recounts growing up in early Hollywood as a member of an early and highly renowned motion picture dynasty, headed by her uncle Cecil B. DeMille. She writes movingly of her early fascination with dance and her watching and meeting the great Anna Pavlova, when DeMille was a child and Pavlova was at the end of her career. DeMille’s family pushed her in many ways but was downright hostile to her dancing aspirations.

DeMille was a pioneer. She forged a career doing what she really wanted to do. There were no roadmaps for an aspiring dancer born in 1895. Indeed, in the face of family opposition, a late and sporadic dance education and something less than a classic ballet dancer’s body, it is bewildering to read about how DeMille created her career. It wasn’t like today where there are ballet schools everywhere and a significant number of ballet companies are scattered across the United States. DeMille wanted to dance and created dances for herself, in part because she saw no alternative.

DeMille’s writing is clear and unsentimental. She manages to write a story about herself and her projects without coming across as an obnoxious braggart. She sees the humor of her failed efforts and the sleezy producers and impresarios determined to fleece her. She also acknowledges people such as Martha Graham, who gave her sage advice. The backstory to this brilliant memoir is that DeMille pretty much knew everyone in dance during the first half of the twentieth century and beyond.

DeMille acknowledges her family’s failings (and strengths) and then moves on. Her gift is to appreciate what her family has given her whilst still recognizing where and how she feels her family fell short. Ultimately, DeMille’s gratitude toward her family overpowers the negative and is very moving.

Anna George DeMille, Agnes DeMille’s mother, is a fascinating side story throughout the memoir. She transforms from being a successful Hollywood wife actively trying to sabotage her daughter’s dance aspirations to becoming a stunned and shattered divorcée. Ultimately Anna is her daughter’s biggest booster, and one can see see that her ultimate gift to her daughter was instilling in Agnes the confidence and determination that took her to greatness.

If you love dance and dance history, this book is a must. Even if you aren’t a big dance fan, this is a great story of someone who went from having an unformed idea of simply wanting to dance and to create dance to blasting through the conventions of her day and making a huge contribution to the dance world.

A Lucky Child — A Moving Holocaust Memoir from the Point of View of a Child Survivor

This is a particularly compelling Holocaust memoir because the author has written it as he perceived it as a child. While the author acknowledges that his memory is imperfect and that it is too late to consult the adults witnesses to his story, this book does a remarkable job of showing what it meant to somehow make it through the Holocaust as a young boy.

Thomas Buergenthal has had a significant career as the American judge on the International Court of Justice and as a professor of international law. In many ways those accomplishments pale in comparison to the remarkable story of his surviving the Holocaust as a child. In A Lucky Child — A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz as a Young Boy, Buergenthal recounts the remarkable story of how he made it through the Holocaust. Since he experienced the Holocaust as a child who was frequently on his own, Buergenthal didn’t have a sophisticated idea of what was happening or why. He just encountered events as they happened and somehow managed to survive. He went from being a likely spoiled only child in very comfortable circumstances to being hunted and ultimately separated from his parents. Fortunately he picked up just enough street smarts and made some lucky choices at the right time. And, he had some courageous adults who stepped up the plate and looked out for him at opportune times.

All in all, it is an amazing and staggering story that makes you ache for the author and his family and for all the children who weren’t so lucky.

Why Not Say What Happened, a Memoir by Ivana Lowell, is an Interesting Read

This was a strange book.  It was a gift that had been sitting on my shelf for a few years, and I finally decided to read it.  It was both repelling and fascinating.  It was also super timely!

Let’s just say that Ivana Lowell, in this book published in 2010, may have been one of the very first women to complain of and describe Harvey Weinstein’s sexually abusive behavior.  That alone makes the book memorable, but wait, there’s more!

There is really no excuse for my fascination with royalty and the aristocracy, particularly the English aristocracy.  Ivana Lowell is an aristocrat.  She was born in New York 1966, to Caroline Blackwood, who was a writer and also the daughter of Maureen, the Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava (as well as an heiress to the Guinesss fortune).  Ivana’s father was less certain as her mother either didn’t care to know or, more likely, chose to mislead her daughter about who exactly her father was.  Who does that?   That lone fact creates an absolutely appalling image of a self-absorbed, alcoholic mother who preferred her own dramas to the demands of mothering.  Ivana’s mother actually died (and had plenty of warning that she was dying) without telling her daughter who her father was.  

As an interesting literary note, one of Blackwood’s husbands was the American poet Robert Lowell, who seems to have been a loving, if distracted and unreliable, stepfather.  Ivana Lowell bears his name, but not his genes.

Ivana’s mother is a central character in this book, but this is no Mommy, Dearest.  Caroline Blackwood suffered through her own tough yet pampered childhood with a terribly self-absorbed mother and a social millieau tht wasn’t exactly child-friendly.  One wouldn’t have expected her to become mother of the year, but still!  She was intelligent; she had resources.  Sadly she seldom applied those gifts to parenting.  There was an utterly self-absorbed, twisted side to her, but the main thing that stands out is that she took no ongoing responsibility for her children.  That said, Ivana has a remarkable amount of affection for her mother.  She is apparently quite amused by her and has fond recollections of the most outrageous acting out, even as she now seems to understand how inappropriate and cruel some of it was.

Now that I’ve established that I’m not judgmental…….  Ivana seems more easily understood.  Not only did she have some spectacularly appalling parenting, but she was sexually abused and also terribly burned as a child.  (At least her mother seems to have been supportive in helping her daughter with her burns and scarring.)  It’s no surprise Ivana became an alcoholic, given her family and her circumstances.  Ivana didn’t exactly major in responsibility for much of her life.  Yet this wonderful book shows someone trying to come to terms with what she has experienced and what she hopes to be.  She acknowledges her scars and is resolved to move on.  She sees her setbacks as understandable, but remains curiously optimistic and determined to be there for her own daughter.  I ended up with a lot of respect for Ivana’s sense of humor, her humility, her painful honesty and her ultimate hopefulness that things could work out for her and her daughter.

This is an odd book, with lots of peculiar segues.  It is certainly entertaining, but it has unsuspected depth.   I’m glad I read it, and I keep thinking about it.

The Song and the Silence — A Strong Account of Looking for Roots and Belonging — by Yvette Johnson

Yvette Johnson has written a brave and vivid account of her own personal struggles growing up as the African-American daughter of a professional football player and a fierce mother.  In The Song and the Silence —  A Story about Family, Race, and What Was Revealed in a Small Town in the Mississippi Delta While Searching for Booker Writght, Johnson analyzes her own substantial problems and conflicts.  She didn’t get what she wanted or thought she needed from her parents and found herself adrift.  She also struggles with mental illness.  But fortunately, curiosity and a great deal of personal strength prevail.  Johnson starts to dig into the remarkable story of her maternal grandfather, Booker Wright, who was the subject of a short but epic television documentary filmed in Greenwood, Mississippi, in the 1960’s.  Understanding what her grandfather’s world was like in the Jim Crow South leads Johnson to keep investigating.  Booker Wright may have been an icon, but he also led a very complicated personal life.  He did some fine things for the community and he spoke out bravely on television, but he also inspired alot of resentment within his community.

Johnson has written a great story in and of itself.  The writing is clear and compelling.  What makes this a great book is the author’s determination to keep working at unraveling the past and acquiring a better understanding of what happened and how the tragic effects have never completely gone away.  She forces herself to dig into the past, even when it tells her things she would rather not know.  She develops and shares a profound appreciation for just how horribly, horribly hard it was to grow up in the Jim Crow South and how those scars shaped people such as her emotionally remote mother.  This information is not obtained in one fell swoop.  Johnson’s patience in visiting repeatedly and lingering in Greenwood during some hot summer months yields a far greater understanding than a more sharply focused investigation might have done.

Determined not to settle for the hand she has been dealt, Johnson ends her book with some sound and encouraging recommendations for people struggling with mental illness.  I’m inevitably inspired by people who are candidly struggling with their own problems and still reaching back to help and inspire others.

I strongly recommend this book.  It goes beyond what I’d expected.

Gweilo – A Memoir of a Hong Kong Childhood

Martin Booth has written a marvelous memoir about moving to Hong Kong and living there as a young boy in the early 1950’s.  Booth, an important British author, was moved to write Gweilo – A Memoir of a Hong Kong Childhood after he was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2004.  The result of this last literary effort is a warm, amazing tale where Booth’s mother proves to be a major heroine and Martin emerges as someone we would all like to know.

In 1952, Booth’s father was posted to Hong Kong as a civilian employee of the British Navy.  As is sometimes sadly the case, Booth Senior’s importance to the Empire was in inverse proportion to his self-importance, and he was content to leave Martin, his only child, in an English boarding school.  Fortunately Booth’s mother was having none of that and insisted on bringing their son with them to Hong Kong.   And so in 1952 Martin Booth left an impoverished England, still struggling with post-war privation, and travelled to Hong Kong where he and his family lived for three years.  Martin and his mother loved exotic Hong Kong for all the reasons his literally gin-swilling father detested it.  Indeed the Booth family can be seen as a microcosm of the struggle between the old guard determination to hang on to the vestiges of the British Empire and the contrasting determination of a new generation eager explore new things and embrace variety and change.  

Martin was clearly his mother’s child, and remained resentful of his father for all sort of reasons.  The unhappiness of his parents’ marriage provides a sad back drop to what is otherwise a thrilling story of what happens when a seven year old boy is given license to explore an exotic city.  Allowing a seven year old child free rein to explore a new city, let along Hong Kong, on his own is unimaginable today, but that is what Martin got to do.  While Martin and his mother certainly did some exploring together, Martin’s independent solo forays provide the most amazing and exciting adventures in the book.  Happily Martin emerged from these adventures unharmed.  He also developed a deep empathy, understanding and love for Hong Kong.  His freedom enabled him to poke around, ask questions and learn to speak some rudimentary Chinese.  Martin encountered horrific poverty and encountered dangerous snakes and some pretty shady people, but he had a blast and learned a lot.  Indeed,  I found Martin’s adventures in the 1950’s to be considerably more thrilling and informative than my own trip to Hong Kong this past August.  Among other things this book shows what Hong Kong has lost, both good and bad.  

Martin’s mother deserves a major shout out.  Her openness and spirit of adventure educated and inspired her son to explore the city and its neighborhoods on his own.  Martin Booth learned a lot from watching his mother.  Observing how she coped with difficulties gave him some useful tools when he met his own difficulties.  Today this remarkable woman would undoubtedly be charged with child neglect, but this was the 1950’s, when many of us recall a lot more childhood freedom to roam and fend for ourselves than his common today.  Still, Martin’s mother comes across as uniquely permissive when it comes to letting her young son explore Hong Kong on his own.

The book ends when the family sails back to England after their three years in Hong Kong, but fortunately Booth got to return to Hong Kong a few years later.  I was so happy he got to return.

I loved this book.  It is a warm remembrance of a few years of childhood in exotic Hong Kong.

Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching — A Young Black Man’s Education

Mychal Denzel Smith, a contributing writer for The Nation, among other things, has written an important book.  Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching — A Young Black Man’s Education held my attention and driving home its central point.  We live in a racist society, and no amount of rationalization or picking apart the facts of a particular incident can deny that black people are getting killed by the police at an alarming rate, and that this fact is symptomatic of our racist society.  

Smith was in his late 20’s when he wrote his short, intense book.   He covers a lot of ground, ranging from the central fact of systemic racism to more unusual themes.  He discusses the difficulties black women have endured in a movement that has frequently focused only on the plight and challenges faced by black men.  This is something Smith comes to see, just as he begins to appreciate the plight of gay black people.  Smith is candid about his experience and points to times when he may have rushed to conclusions or when he faltered in his own life.  Smith struggled with depression, and he is candid about his reluctance to seek help and about the value of the help he finally received.  Ultimately, Smith projects a remarkable and well-placed confidence in himself and his options.  

This book is also a remarkable account of an undergraduate education.  Fortunately, his family didn’t give him much choice about attending college.  It was assumed he would go and do well.  Like a lot of teenage boys I know, Smith doesn’t seem to have given a whole lot of thought to where he would go to school, and he wasn’t a driven student, for the most part.  Fortunately, his time at Hampton opened his eyes to a lot of things.  The fact that he wasn’t studying for a particular career gave him freedom and the opportunity to experience a number of things.  He gratefully notes how at least one teacher had an enormous impact on him, and his adventures and misadventures in running the school paper gave him a practical political education.  It is always a good thing to stop and reflect upon the advantages of a liberal arts education and of not having a fixed game plan at an early age.

Nothing undercuts Smith’s anger and bleak assessment of racism.  That is the crucial underpinning of this book.  He doesn’t try to provide a fix.  His willingness to look back and assess himself and others and to adjust his thinking about certain “norms” make this a very illuminating book. Mychal Denzel Smith advances the conversation on race in America.  His own willingness to assess and reassess his own assumptions and positions over time set a fine example for the rest of us.  I am so glad I read this book.  It was often an uncomfortable read, but it kept offering new ways of looking at issues and events.  Throughout there was the constant drum beat that until the police killings of black people stop, we have little hope of moving ahead.  Given that underlying premise, Smith opens a dynamic conversation.

The Clancys of Queens — A Beguiling Memoir

I loved everything about The Clancys of Queens, Tara Clancy’s warm and funny memoir of growing up in Brooklyn and Queens as the only child of a divorced Italian mother and Irish father.  As a child Tara seems to have spent more time figuring out how to stir things up than she did pondering her unusual family circumstances.  She doesn’t seem to have been a sad or particularly introspective child.  Instead, she happily careened around her family’s various homes and hangouts.   Presumably not everyone  appreciated some of her more daredevil efforts, but the book’s prevailing theme is of a group of adults who loved her, raised her, accepted her quirks and tried to help her find her way.  Oddly none of these otherwise caring people seems to have been particularly focused on her formal education.  Clancy clearly picked up a great deal just from hanging around adults, but she also enjoyed a great deal of freedom.  Only in her late teens did she stumble upon a copy of King Lear and get excited about literature and interested in higher education.  At that point, the same extended family that had paid little attention to her academics stepped up to the plate and helped her with college expenses.

This book is a wise, funny and non-mushy book.  I really recommend it.