Category Archives: Reading

Book Club Review: A Walk Across The Sun, Corban Addison

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A Walk Across the Sun, written by Corban Addison, traced the ordeal of two sisters in their teens after they had lost their family in the tsunami of 2005, which destroyed their coastal town in India. While they were attempting to walk to their convent school, they were abducted by human traffickers. Ahalya, the older girl, was forced into the sex trade. Her younger sister, Sita, was coerced into drug trafficking.

At the onset of our book club meeting, a few members, including myself, opined that we  approached the book initially with some apprehension, as we were aware that the subject matter involved sex and violence. Nonetheless  we all felt that we were spared of the gory details of the horror of sex trade and drugs. We were drawn into the gripping development of the story line and breathed a sigh of relief at the end of the story. Author Corban Addison has a personal interest in international human rights and the abolition of modern slavery or trade in human being, as he has stated in the Afterword, A Walk Across The Sun is a fitting expression of his passion and a wake-up call to the readership of the heinous crime of human trafficking.

Our host prepared well for our meeting. She posed three questions which not only opened up the discussion but guided it to progress to other issues.

We first talked about the thematic significance of the title of the novel, which came from a poem that Thomas Clarke composed for his estranged wife, Priya, near the end of the story. Thomas’s development throughout the novel ran parallel to the journeys of Ahalya and Sita. Thomas was asking for reconciliation with his wife. His own experience in overcoming his despondency to become a crusader to free the girls had awakened his feelings, blunted probably as a result of losing his child. He and Priya grew apart after their loss of their baby as a result of SID. In his travels to help the sisters, he journeyed across a good part of the globe. He achieved personal growth meanwhile, and the sun was a sign of hope. Equally Ahlaya and Sita (especially Sita) was forced into travelling to conduct illicit acitivites. The title also reflected their finding freedom in the end. The Sun, or the bright side, prevailed.

Even so, the story also highlighted the contradictions that existed in society. Another question brought up involved the road trip to Atlanta, and Sita find out the story of Elsie, the runaway from Pittsburgh. Elsie was impressed by Sita’s command of English and Sita replied that the whole world spoke English, to which Elsie exclaimed, “That’s because America is the best country on earth.” Given the circumstances both girls were going through, the remark was indeed an irony to how America (or USA, which symbolizes the so-called civilized western world) really was.

This also opened up our discussion on whether some people willingly compromised their integrity to just be in America. Are there the willing and unwilling drug traffickers? Are there the willing and unwilling prostitutes? Personal observations were shared, including the methods of drug detection at the customs across borders, thanks of a member of our book club who worked as a customs officer.

At this point, the youngest member raised a question that we had to think of a response. She challenged the plot by commenting that to her, it was hard to comprehend why neither Ahlaya nor Sita made any attempt or even contemplated how to escape given their ability to speak English. Was this cultural, in that they came from a reasonably well-to do background and were sheltered by their family when they were growing up? We could only speculate that they were still in shock and lacked the coping mechanisms to deal with the trauma of losing their families and their personal tragedies.

Then comes the questions about the girl’s future. Thomas asked, “Will Sita ever want to marry a man after all that she has seen?” And for Ahalya, will she be accepted by her own culture after her tragedy and exploitation. The story does conclude with a note of hope. The sisters are re-united. Ahalya seems happy and wants to keep her child. The future is again open to speculation, depending on where the sisters will settle down, the availability of love and support and professional counselling. There is mention of a professional support worker involved and we can only hope that fictional as the characters are, they can overcome their adverse experience and move forward. This is what I would like to see, because I do believe in the resilience of the human soul.

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Book Club Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

I was travelling and could not attend my last book club meeting, and so it was with great anticipation that I read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society for the following  meeting on my return. It was a book I enjoyed reading, particularly because I found out a lot about the German occupation of Guernsey Island during World War II, and it was a page that had been missing in my world history textbook.

Our host began with a more general question: What is your most favourite and least favourite character?   Elizabeth McKenna was the first named, because she was liked by all the characters (except Adelaide Addison) in the book and everyone had something interesting to say about her. Another person our group liked was the heroine Juliet Ashton, who was forthcoming with her feelings and her thoughts. I picked Isola Pribby, because I found her feisty and forthright. There was consensus regarding the least likable characters and it was Mark Reynold, and Adelaide came in close too.

Two book club members were born in Holland and they had much to share regarding what they had heard from their parents and families about the experience of the Dutch under German occupation in World War II. They helped us relate to the hardship and fear the characters in the book had lived through. They said that  rubber tires were removed from bicycles and people cycled on the bare frames. The mother of one person hid cheeses under her clothes, because if they had met a German soldier and he did not like them for whatever reasons, the cheese could have been confiscated. It was also interesting that the family of one member from England had sheltered a children from the city, and again, it made the experience of  Eben Ramsy’s and his grandson more real. It was also brought up that Remy’s story of the concentration camp gave perspective to what the women had gone through in France, since earlier  in the year, we read about concentration camp life in Auschwitz in Man’s Search for Meaning. I never heard of ‘todt’ (the slave in the book, and In German, it means death) until I read this book.

We liked the various surprises in the plot, such as Sydney being gay and the betrayal by Bobbie Gee. By contrast, the ending was too fairy-tale like, and not to everyone’s liking. It was attributed to the fact that probably it was the second author taking over and the onus was on her to give a quick conclusion to the story. Nonetheless, there was fair treatment of the misreading and misunderstanding of feelings among the characters– Dawsey, Juliet, Mark, Sydney and Remy– throughout the book. This helped with character development and adds to the readers’ enjoyment.

Isola made a remark in the book that reading a good book spoiled one’s enjoyment of reading a bad one. This prompted our discussion of what we looked for in a good book. We all had the experience of turning the pages through a formulaic novel. I smiled to myself, “Chick Lit!”  Individual expectations and criteria varied. Some looked for style, some looked for a good story, or interesting characters.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society has succeeded in revealing the different personalities of the individual characters who penned the letters. When I compare it with other letter-writing novels I have read, I think it pales standing beside 84 Charing Cross Road and the Griffin and Sabine Trilogy. It does not have the refined subtlety dealing with emotions as in 84 Charing Cross Road, or the intense mystique and power of Griffin and Sabine. Nevertheless, it stands on its own as a good book and an enjoyable read. in fact, I found myself laughing out loud in the beginning reading Juliet’s letters. She is lively and humorous. It is always healthy to read a lighter book in between the viscerally or cerebrally demanding ones.

We digressed into talking how we missed the experience of letter writing and the anticipation of receiving letters now that email had taken over, although some of us still wrote letters and sent them through email. We lamented, “Who would bother about pen-pals when social media on the internet has taken over?” To me,  Writing a letter and addressing it to an individual (and this certainly rule out blogging) is personal and private. It is a unique media to express and share one’s thoughts and feelings.  I certainly hope that letter writing will not become a lost art.

Book Club Review: Wild Health, Cindy Engel

I would not normally pick a book of this genre, but thanks to my book club, I had this opportunity to educate myself on a topic outside of my realm of knowledge and awareness.

There was a lot of information in this book and everybody agreed it was a challenge reading through it quickly. Fortunately, the chapters were well-defined, and one could read the chapters in any order one chose. The topics spanned from how animals use poisonous plants to cure themselves of sickness, what they do to keep off mites, to how they deal with births and deaths.

It was apt for the host, who selected this book, to ask everybody what she found most interesting given all the information. The most vote went to the fact that animals eat earth to keep themselves healthy, and then they eat leaves with barbs to get rid of the worms that they have swallowed with the dirt. We were also amused by how animals get high with fermented fruits, that animals cover broken bones with certain leaves to help them mend, and that elephants put leaves over their dead.

I grew up in a culture in which herbal medicine was frequently used. The book revealed to me that the white powder that was put on my wounds after scraping myself when I was a child was discovered, according to a legend, by a farmer who followed a snake to discover what it ate after being wounded. I also related to the comments that even in the animal kingdom, bitterness was a measure of how effective the plants was for healing, and I remembered well the dark and bitter herbal drinks I had when I was young.

Given all the interesting facts, the book has also left us with many questions. The author is a biologist, and biologists are experts in documenting and categorizing factual findings. Engel undoubtedly has consulted many references, scientific or legendary, to write this book. However, after educating the readers with a lot of “what”s, we cannot help questioning the “how”s and the “why”s.

It would be educational to know to what the extent the animal behavior to maintain health is   due to evolution and how much it is a learned behavior, either from growing up with their parents or learning by trial and error. Another unsolved mystery is the author referring to the “minds” of the animals when she discusses how animals react to stress or seek for pleasure. Little do we know about the minds of human beings, let only wild animals. Conceptually, an explanation referring to the “brain” of the animals is more tenable, particularly based on available animal studies in the laboratory about the pleasure centers and biochemical changes in the brain under stress.

We also had a discussion on our reactions to zoos after reading about the richness and diversities out there in the wild for the animals to maintain their health and to heal themselves when they are unwell. There was a consensual feeling that zoos should be designed to reflect the natural habitat of the animals as much as possible. What we now know about health behavior of animals can help us provide a better diet and environment for them, even when they are kept in captivity by  man.

Book Club Review: Man’s Search For Meaning, Viktor Frankl

The person hosting our recent book club meeting picked Viktor Fankl’s Man In Search For Meaning, because it caught her attention on the reading list of her child’s Ethics course. I read an earlier edition (1962) of this book many years ago when I was a Psychology Major. It also became a reading I assigned to my students in my psychotherapy course. I have not read it in recent years, but I sometimes mention this title to some of my clients when they ask for a book on the meaning of life.

I looked forward to re-reading the book and the meeting.  In particular, I was interested how the book would be discussed in a book club as different from an academic or a therapy-oriented setting.

I bought the latest edition (1992), which had a new preface by the author in the same year. There was also a Postscript (1984), “The Case for a Tragic Optimism” based on a lecture delivered by the author a year earlier.

I told DH, who picked the book, that she had chosen a little book which was bigger than life.  She agreed and first posed the question about Frankl’s decision not to publish the book anonymously. Everybody preferred to know the author, because the name,provided a sense of reality as well as accountability to the contents.

People started to wonder what kind of a person Frankl was: “nice”, “calm”, “deep”, “complex”, and probably “non-judgmental” as a psychotherapist? These qualities were contrasted with the personality traits of those inmates in the concentration camp who had given up hope and died, and those of the kapos. What would one do to survive? Choosing between survival and integrity must be truly difficult indeed. There were some personal acknowledgement of what the individual would do under trying circumstances, and that was with reference to Frankl’s description of a former kapos whom he met years later and who seemed to have rehabilitated and redeemed himself.

The fact Frankl wrote that he decided to stay with his parents instead of moving to New York also intrigued us. It transpired that Frankl did not mention that he was Jewish in the first part of the book, and little did we know about his upbringing in a Jewish family. How much had the values his parents instilled in him played a role in his decision, when he remembered the commandment to “love thy parents”? Regardless, when he was describing his concentration camp, being Jewish or not did not matter. His account was one human being watching other human beings suffer. Ethnicity was irrelevant there.

Source: Main Commission for the Investigation of Nazi War Crimes; USHMM archives.

It was felt that in order to be able to endure and survive extreme hardship, based on what we had inferred from the book, a person had to have an inner life or spiritual freedom. I opined that we were all capable of attaining an inner life, yet in this world repleted with material cravings, many people were misled into thinking that happiness was an entity to be acquired, as promised by the so-called “ways to happiness” in many “how to” books. There was a comparison between Buddhism and Frankl’s idea that sufferings were inevitable in life. Then it was felt that Frankl proposed a more optimistic outlook which recognized choice, responsibility, love and meaning. The story of Jerry Long provided an inspirational vignettes in the book. What was revealing though was the universal theme of “Man’s Search”, be it the Holy Grail in western culture or the Sacred Book in the Chinese legend of the Monkey King.

The majority of us liked the book. There were many quotable quotes. One of mine was, “…it did not really matter what we expected form life, but rather what life expected from us” (p.85). An observation was that if Man considered himself to be supreme, he would have nothing to anchor himself when he was reduced to bare nakedness. However, either a religious or a spiritual orientation which allowed for a higher explanation for one’s existence might lend meaning to life. Or perhaps, in the apparent nothingness, there could be a sense of “being” which paradoxically enabled one to “be”. Other favorite quotes included “The solution of man is through love and in love” (p.49); “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how” (Frankl quoting Nietzsche); and “Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems…” (p.85).

We had a lively discussion. I enjoyed it  because I could relate to the book from an experiential angle. Years of scientific training, and asking questions about evidence-based methods has led me to be concerned more about the effectiveness of logotherapy, and the logical relationship between its techniques and its conceptual framework in the past.  My re-reading of the book for the book club and the discussion that ensued had given me the opportunity to connect with the book at a different level. I knew there were many levels from which this book could be analyzed.  As for my book club experience, I was pleased that I could ask questions about myself and my life in a non-judgmental way. I also had the openness in the sharing of my book club members to thank for.

Book Club Review: Ru, Kim Thuy

I went to my first book club meeting, and sat down with nine ladies to talk about Ru by Kim Thuy. It was a beautiful book, from the lacy-like cover to the contents inside. We all felt that it was a very feminine book. It also was the winner of the  2010 Governor General’s Award for French language fiction. (Nobody mentioned chick lit here.)

The theme of the book was the memoir of the author, who left Vietnam at a young age during the Vietnamese War and settled down in Montreal to start a new life. It evoked some shared experience among many of us, because there were at least six persons in our group who were either immigrants to Canada or had close family ties overseas. Personally, I had poignant moments reading the book when the author wrote about an altered sense of the past, present and future when she landed in a foreign land. I also related to her need to share with her children the culture and the history of her home that she left behind. As she switched between past and present her vignettes, the emotional journey moved between that of an innocent young 10-year girl to that of a loving mother with two sons to raise. How true is the realization that not until one becomes a mother can one appreciate what maternal love means.

I knew that what she wrote about the hardship leaving Vietnam in a boat, how fellow travellers hid their money, gold and in her case diamonds, and the life in the refugee camp was real. I had professional contacts with Vietnamese immigrants in the camps in Hong Kong and in my work in Canada and they had similar stories to tell. What surprised me though was given this terrible war and  the atrocities that had happened to many refugees that she was aware of, the author was able to treat it in the same dream-like and lyrical style as she did with her other material. Were the details too painful to recall? Or was it that the memory had become distant–like a dream now?

Again, our discussion revolved around personal immigrant experience and sense of identity among our children. Our sentiments ranged from dismay, frustration to resignation. This made me think of Banana Boys, written by Terry Woo. Actually the book was brought to my attention by my children. I was glad to have read the book, and talked about it with them. For lack of a better description, we had a cathartic moment.

In the end, our book club members all agreed on one thing. The best way to be introduce a culture to someone is the food–what could be better than a dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant for all of us down the road.