Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

To celebrate the holidays, I've decided to choose a more light-oriented read that is fictional and has garnered a lot of popularity among women. Our last book for 2010 is The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Barrows.
Location TBD - stay tuned!

Here's a summary of the book:
The letters comprising this small charming novel begin in 1946, when single, 30-something author Juliet Ashton (nom de plume Izzy Bickerstaff) writes to her publisher to say she is tired of covering the sunny side of war and its aftermath. When Guernsey farmer Dawsey Adams finds Juliet's name in a used book and invites articulate—and not-so-articulate—neighbors to write Juliet with their stories, the book's epistolary circle widens, putting Juliet back in the path of war stories.

The occasionally contrived letters jump from incident to incident—including the formation of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society while Guernsey was under German occupation—and person to person in a manner that feels disjointed. But Juliet's quips are so clever, the Guernsey inhabitants so enchanting and the small acts of heroism so vivid and moving. Juliet finds in the letters not just inspiration for her next work, but also for her life—as will readers.

Happy Holidays!

Is it her story or the story of her indigenous community?

The beginning of the story was choppy and dry, focused more on describing details of her indigenous culture. Interesting but not an easy flow to read. However, once she gets into the story-telling of her family and eventually her participation in the struggle, it became much more interesting to read. 

We did find that there were quite a number of contradictions and it was hard to really know whether the story was really her own, as she would describe more about other people than herself. But I still felt the importance of her stories, even though it's not sure whose story they really belong to. The significance of sharing their struggles as a discriminated and marginalized population is high. Figuring out the importance of indigenous identity coupled with Christian faith also emphasized the contradictions in her narrative.

We also questioned the transcriber herself, playing up her role more than it should have been.

In any case, we all agreed that it was worth a read and a great book to discuss about.

I, Rigoberta Menchu, an Indian Woma in Guatemala

Our next book is a memoir orally communicated by a Nobel Peace Prize winner, Rigoberta Menchu who wrote the book "I, Rigoberta Menchu; An Indian Woman in Guatemala" (translated and edited by Elisabeth Burgos-Debray). We'll be meeting in the Van Ness neighborhood at It's a Grind Coffee House. 

Here's a book summary:
This book recounts the remarkable life of Rigoberta Menchu, a young Guatemalan peasant woman. Her story reflects the experiences common to many Indian communities in Latin America today. Rigoberta suffered gross injustice and hardship in her early life: her brother, father and mother were murdered by the Guatemalan military. She learned Spanish and turned to catechist work as an expression of political revolt as well as religious commitment. 

The anthropologist Elisabeth Burgos-Debray, herself a Latin American woman, conducted a series of interviews with Rigoberta Menchu. The result is a book unique in contemporary literature which records the detail of everyday Indian life. Rigoberta's gift for striking expression vividly conveys both the religious and superstitious beliefs of her community and her personal response to feminist and socialist ideas. Above all, these pages are illuminated by the enduring courage and passionate sense of justice of an extraordinary woman.

How one woman can start a human rights movement

The book was inspirational and insightful on the beginnings of this incredible organization that helped mainstream the word "Human Rights" - imagine a time when that wasn't even recognized!

It definitely describes the time of Cold War and her challenges to meet regularly with human rights activists. Members of the book club had mixed reviews of her writing style and some had challenges getting into it, but her story was still important to be shared. So many names and different countries - it was hard to keep track of it all, and showcases how great it was for her to remember these people so well and keep in touch in a time when there was no Internet, no email at all. Means of communication are so different now - it makes you see how that can facilitate tracking of human rights violations.

There were definitely inspiring stories that came out such as the activist she met in then Czechoslovakia, who became the first President of that country once it was out of USSR's realm.

It is quite dense but important work to recognize!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Courage of Strangers by Jeri Laber

We are now returning to another memoir focused on the founder of Human Rights Watch, Jeri Laber who wrote the book "The Courage of Strangers; Coming of Age with the Human Rights Movement". We'll be meeting in the SOMA neighborhood at Cafe Terzetto this upcoming Sunday October 3 at 2pm.

Here's a book summary:
A homemaker with an academic background in Russians Studies, Jeri Laber gradually became involved with a developing human rights movement in America during the 1970s and 1980s, going on to become the director of Helsinki Watch, an organization that monitored human rights abuses, espcially in the Soviet bloc. Under her guidance, Helsinki Watch broadened its focus to the whole world, eventually merging into one composite organization called Human Rights Watch. 

Laber's book is first and foremost an autobiographical account of her lifelong devotion to exposing human rights abuses and preventing future abuses, interspersed with references to her personal and family life. This account details her often dangerous trips to Brezhnev's Soviet Union and Eastern European nations and chronicles the events leading to the development of Helsinki Watch and Human Rights Watch. 

This book offers inspirational testimony to the value of a human rights organization that investigates and publicizes human rights violations with fairness and without regard to political ideology or U.S. foreign policy.

Next book to read:
Sunday October 31 - I, Rigoberta Menchu, An Indian Women in Guatemala by Rigoberta Menchu (translated and edited by Elisabeth Burgos-Debray)

Nine Parts of Desire by Geraldine Brooks

After reading a couple of fiction books, we returned to the non-fiction genre and traveling to the Middle East to read the book "Nine Parts of Desire" by Geraldine Brooks. 

Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women is the story of Brooks’ intrepid journey toward an understanding of the women behind the veils, and of the often contradictory political, religious, and cultural forces that shape their lives. 

Geraldine Brooks spent two years as a Middle East news correspondent, covering the death of Khomeini and the like. She also learned a lot about what it's like for Islamic women today. Brooks' book is exceedingly well-done--she knows her Islamic lore and traces the origins of today's practices back to Mohammed's time. Personable and very readable, Brooks takes us through the women's back door entrance of the Middle East for an unusual and provocative view. 

Through her book, we discussed how still relevant her book was, featuring Islamic women and showing us a more personalized story about women from different countries. That really gave the book a broader perspective and gave us reference to compare women practicing Islam in different countries.

Brooks also described detailed excerpts from the Koran that gives us more to the story of Mohammed, the prophet and the important role women played in his life. It was interesting to see how a Jewish Middle East Correspondent from Australia lived in this period and was able to collect intimate stories of women on the ground.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Little Bee's journey in the UK

This was an enriching discussion where we felt emotional about Little Bee's life from Nigeria to the circumstances that brought her to the UK. The description of the deportation center is real and the author does a good job in displaying the grim reality of what is happening with immigration in Western countries. 

There is an interesting easy flow to the story as it paths through two voices of women living such different worlds. However, we had issues with the white woman's voice and couldn't grasped the reasons behind her decisions. She was a complex woman based on nothing substantial, in contrast to a young woman from Nigeria who seem to have a simple life until Western greed got in the way.

It was surprising to have a male author write this story and it felt like he over-exaggerated the emotions that women go through to put a dramatic edge.

We felt that there was no big mystery and the one flaw we saw was that the climax came sooner than later and made the ending questionable. Nevertheless, it was a worthwhile read and definitely a book to discuss with friends.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Little Bee by Chris Cleave - July 2010

This month, July,  we'll be discussing the book: Little Bee by Chris Cleave. 

 Location: We're meeting in the Potrero Hill neighborhood - a first for the book club - at Farley's coffee house -

Here's what it says on the back cover of the book:
This is the story of two women. Their lives collide one fateful day, and one of them has to make a terrible choice, the kind of choice we hope you never have to face. Two years later, they meet again - the story starts there...
Once you have read it, you'll want to tell your friends all about it. When you do, please don't tell them what happens. The magic is in how the story unfolds.
Sounds intriguing, no? 

Nine Parts of Desire by Geraldine Brooks

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Sisters in the Congo

A story based in the Congo, where war is rampant still today and we read about a missionary family led by a man who feels his calling to impose beliefs on the local people without hesitation. Even though he is the central figure we never really get to hear his voice, because the story is shared by the women in the family.

The four daughters play their own voice, so different from each other and none ever being the ultimate hero. It is all about their experience and their choices, which are unexpected yet reliable.

The writing was such a delight - very easy read yet not lacking in details and I truly appreciate the details of Congo history, Patrice Lumumba, Mobutu as well as Angola's history. It reflects a story of survival, of adaptation, of not letting go of a place that you hate and love at the same time. 

Not sure if this is Barbara Kingsolver's best, although many will argue it is - but encourages to read her other books!

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver - June 2010

On Sunday June 6 at 2pm we'll be discussing the book: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. Location will be in the North Beach neighborhood - 901 Columbus Avenue (between Chestnut and Lombard). 

Here's a book summary:
The Poisonwood Bible is a story told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. They carry with them everything they believe they will need from home, but soon find that all of it -- from garden seeds to Scripture -- is calamitously transformed on African soil. What follows is a suspenseful epic of one family's tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction over the course of three decades in postcolonial Africa.

Books to read in the future:July - Little Bee by Chris Cleave
Following month:
Nine Parts of Desire by Geraldine Brooks

Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down - May 2010

Forgot to post this book club meeting and discussion:

Here's a book summary:
The Hmong people in America are mainly refugee families who supported the CIA militaristic efforts in Laos. They are a clannish group with a firmly established culture that combines issues of health care with a deep spirituality that may be deemed primitive by Western standards. In Merced, CA, which has a large Hmong community, Lia Lee was born, the 13th child in a family coping with their plunge into a modern and mechanized way of life. The child suffered an initial seizure at the age of three months. Her family attributed it to the slamming of the front door by an older sister. They felt the fright had caused the baby's soul to flee her body and become lost to a malignant spirit. The report of the family's attempts to cure Lia through shamanistic intervention and the home sacrifices of pigs and chickens is balanced by the intervention of the medical community that insisted upon the removal of the child from deeply loving parents with disastrous results.

This compassionate and understanding account fairly represents the positions of all the parties involved. The suspense of the child's precarious health, the understanding characterization of the parents and doctors, and especially the insights into Hmong culture make this a very worthwhile read. 

This is a great book for a book club discussion even though the book might be outdated - I can see how this book is required for reading in many universities and departments. It was so fascinating to study the dynamics of the Hmong family and their interactions with the medical staff. I don't think any of us got to a specific solution of what could have been done better, but the need of interpretation for culture as well as language is key to addressing any issue, in this case health.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Amazing the stories but who's the audience?

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I was actually debating between 3 and 4 stars - I really did enjoy the book and thought it was powerful and many of the stories are so well described, but towards to the end I started to feel uncomfortable in the ways to resolve these issues. For example, he talks about the importance of using a bottom-up approach and then he gives the example of Heifer International and how it was a foreign woman who changed the life of a Zimbabwean who went to the US to get her education and that was a success story.... Also supporting the Mexico program Oportunidades as an exemplary model where I have observed in person that it's not the case in the state of Chiapas, makes me start questioning the credibility of some of his case studies.

Nevertheless, I was very engaged with the book and my heart went out to so many of those stories. Just when I thought I could sit down and read some pages before going to sleep I read a page of a horrific gang-rape case... I also cried on the MUNI multiple times reading this book...

Great book to discuss about, for sure!

View all my reviews >>

Meet incredible women from around the world

Our next book for March will celebrate International Women's Month by reading Half the Sky - Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women worldwide by Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl DuWann. We'll be meeting on Sunday March 28 at 2pm - our next coffeeshop will be Cafe Abir in the NOPA neighborhood. 

Here's a book summary:
New York Times columnist Kristoff and his wife, WuDunn, a former Times reporter, make a brilliantly argued case for investing in the health and autonomy of women worldwide. More girls have been killed in the last fifty years, precisely because they were girls, than men were killed in all the wars of the twentieth century, they write, detailing the rampant gendercide in the developing world, particularly in India and Pakistan. The authors reveal local women to be the most effective change agents.

I just found out that this book has a long waiting list at the Library - so here are some options:
1) You can read the New York Times magazine that featured this book at the following link:
2) You can read the book online through Borders website at the following link: - click on "Look Inside"
3) If you're willing to purchase the book - check out Green Apples or go to BookSmith, which gives 15% discount when you say you're a WOW book club member

Books to read in the future:
April - Spirit catches you - Anna Fadiman
Next Month - The Poisonwood Bible - Barbara Kingslover

Impressed with the power of a young Afghan woman

We were all in awe of an incredible young woman living in a place where women don't have freedom of speech and can be killed for it - and yet we discover the story of someone who has overcome incredible odds to speak about women's rights in Afghanistan. We are all surprised how she is still alive.

We valued how much her parent's support has been key to maximizing her potential to become such an empowered woman from the moment she decided to return to Afghanistan from a refugee camp to lead education program underground for women. 

She has the support of her community to represent them at the parliament level and it was insightful for us to read how courageous and beautiful the community is. We don't usually get to hear how active and brave the Afghan people are when we read about Afghanistan in the US newspaper. 

We hope to support her and other women who are fearless in voicing out injustices around the world - we all left inspired to do something!

Friday, February 26, 2010

Insight into Aghan people and its history

A Woman Among Warlords: The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Who Dared to Raise Her Voice A Woman Among Warlords: The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Who Dared to Raise Her Voice by Malalai Joya

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This book was such a wonderful unique insight into knowing the people from Afghanistan - after hearing so many negative news from that country - it was inspiring. The first part of the book was definitely an easier flow and the second part was quite harder to read, but so powerful. I hope everyone gets a chance to read this book and see how inspiring and beautiful Afghan people are.

View all my reviews >>

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Going to Afghanistan

Let's travel to Afghanistan! We'll be reading another memoir written by Malalai Joya called A Woman Among Warlords: The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Who Dared to Raise Her Voice. We'll be meeting in the Haight/Ashbury neighborhood on Sunday February 28, 2010.

Here's a book summary:
One of the few women, and the youngest, to win a seat in Afghanistan's Parliament, Joya recounts in strong, uncompromising language her march to activism, from her humble origins to recognizing a burning need to bring the corrupted leaders to justice in her war-torn country. Native to the western Afghan province of Ziken, and later Farah City, Joya—a name she had to adopt in order to protect her family—grew up mostly in desperate, unsafe refugee camps in Pakistan after the Russians invaded Afghanistan in 1978. 
With only a high school education (and one wonders how she wrote this book in English), she nonetheless became a teacher in the camps, then worked to organize underground classes for girls in Herat in defiance of Taliban edicts.

Her activism grew, supporting orphanages and war victims after the Taliban fled and the U.S. began air strikes and became an armed presence; Joya is adamant in underscoring the responsibility America holds in reinstalling to power the same warlords (commanders she names in the Northern Alliance) who once tore the country apart during the civil war of the 1990s. Having won election to Parliament in 2005 at age 27—Eva Mulvad's film Enemies of Happiness documented her election—Joya was outspoken in condemning these warlords she called criminals and antiwomen, enduring the shutting off of her microphone, assassination threats and, finally, suspension from Parliament.
Note: Get 15% discount for your book choice by saying you're a WOW book club member at BookSmith - support your local independent bookstore.

Books to read in the future:
March - Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristoff
April - Spirit catches you by Anna Fadiman
Join our Facebook Group: Women of the World (WOW) Book Club

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Lessons of Faith for Reflection

An insightful discussion starting in 2010 on learning from Anne Lamott's journey with faith and realizing how little we talk about faith and spirituality. Lamott's genuine thoughts on faith and her sharing of her life stories made her messages and experiences accessible to many of us. 

It was great to see how Lamott went through her own process to find faith or to use faith in key moments of her life... such as deciding whether to let her son paraglide on his birthday at 5, or what to do when a man starts beating up his dog in front of her son. 

Lamott is secured in telling us her flaws and her mistakes and how she feels without shame or judgment. We learn about her lows and ups and at the end of the day, it can be better to look at a bright side and find a learning experience in each moment. A favorite one that we learned on page 107: "when a lot of things start going wrong all at once, it is to protect something big and lovely that is trying to get itself born - and that this something needs for you to be distracted so that it can be born as perfectly as possible."