history

READ THE WORLD – Cambodia: First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung

Narrated by Tavia Gilbert.

One of seven children of a high-ranking government official, Loung Ung lived a privileged life in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh until the age of five. Then, in April 1975, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge army stormed into the city, forcing Ung’s family to flee and, eventually, to disperse. Loung was trained as a child soldier in a work camp for orphans, her siblings were sent to labour camps, and those who survived the horrors would not be reunited until the Khmer Rouge was destroyed.

Knowing next to nothing about Cambodia, its people, its cities, its language, listening to the audiobook really helped to learn the pronunciations of different places and names. I feel by listening to the audiobook I got a better feel for the country and its people than reading a physical copy of the book because I know myself and when there’s a word I don’t know how to pronounce, I often skim over it which can mean it loses its impact or meaning.

Loung Ung was just five years old when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia and her whole life changed in the blink of an eye. What’s captured so well in First They Killed My Father is how a child understands (or doesn’t) such huge things. For instance, when her family lives Phnom Penh the soldiers tell them they can return in three days, and Loung Ung just doesn’t get why they have to keep walking with no real end destination in mind, when after three days they should just turn around and go home.

Slowly over the months and years Loung Ung grows to understand the fear and danger she and her family live in. They face starvation and the way their bodies are described paints a vivid picture in your mind of the malnourishment they are all facing. It isn’t just the hunger but the fear of the Khmer Rouge and what would happen if they learnt that their father was once connected to the government. It’s a constant source of anxiety for the whole family and the children have to quickly learn new rules in order to keep them all alive – if not safe and well.

First They Killed My Father is a tough book to get through. It’s horrifying that so many families went through this; loved ones dying of starvation or food poisoning, having to send older children away to work or be married in to prevent them having to join the army. Loung Ung’s family is just a snapshot of what hundreds and thousands of people went through in order to survive.

The fact that Loung Ung became a child solider when she was seven is appalling. The propaganda she and the other children had to listen to and recite, how Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge were their saviours and the Vietnamese were evil and wouldn’t hesitate to kill them. The indoctrination these children had was effective as Loung Ung learnt to hate the Vietnamese, though she also hated the Khmer Rouge for what they’d done to her family, how they’d split them up and killed them. The when war arrives and Loung Ung and her family get caught up in it, she sees even more death and suffering.

It must’ve been a difficult experience for Loung Ung to put herself back in the mindset of that young scared, angry and starving child. How she went from being loved, in a home with a maid and cars and a telephone, to living in a shack and having to work in the fields. She does a great job at showing how a child would understand and have to compartmentalise these things, but then there’s some moments where there’s some added wisdom and understanding to her parent’s choices that’ve come from time and age.

First They Killed My Father is a difficult book to read, but it’s an important and powerful one. It’s about a country and a moment in history that I knew nothing about and it paints a very human picture to the unimaginable suffering that millions of Cambodians went through.

READ THE WORLD – Honduras: 13 Colors of the Honduran Resistance by Melissa Cardoza

Translated by Matt Ginsberg-Jaeckle.

In 13 Colors of the Honduran Resistance, feminist author and activist Melissa Cardoza tells 13 stories about women from the Honduran resistance in the aftermath of the June 28th, 2009 coup against President Manuel Zelaya.

I’ve said it before, but I really do learn so much about the world through my Read the World Project. I never knew that the first coup of the twenty-first century happened in Honduras and just eleven years ago. Maybe it’s naivety on my part, but I really thought other nations interfering with a countries politics and helping armies kidnap progressive Presidents was a thing of the past. Though, look at the 2016 US election and that proves that’s not the case.

13 Colors of the Honduran Resistance is very short and each of the stories are punchy and effective. Cardoza really brings to life the strength and determination of the people as they protested continuously for hundreds of days. Different people protested in different ways and these stories show their fear of violence from the police and military, but also the ways they fought back.

It’s the women in this resistance who are the focus of this book. What Melissa Cardoza does well is show all the different people from different backgrounds and how they find ways to protest. There are teachers and cleaners, mothers, grandmothers, and daughters, Black women and trans women – they all learn from one another and it’s about the bonds they have during this time of resistance and uncertainty.

The edition of 13 Colors of the Honduran Resistance I read was a bilingual edition, meaning you got to see the Spanish and English versions of the text side by side. As someone who’s relearning Spanish after studying it at A Level, it’s nice to be able to read a book in its original form, with the English right there. There was also footnotes to explain certain events or references which was very helpful.

I learnt a lot from 13 Colors of the Honduran Resistance about the turmoil Honduras has gone through and the people who protested against an unjust coup. But also it reaffirms the strength and perseverance so many women have and how important their camaraderie is. It wasn’t just women in Honduras protesting, women organised in other Central American countries and joined the resistance. Whether it was a small group of half a dozen women, or a huge march of thousands, these women made sure their voices were heard, even when the risk of violent repercussions was so prevalent.

T is for Troy (2004)

When Trojan Prince Paris (Orlando Bloom) falls in love with Helen of Sparta (Diane Kruger) and brings her home with him, it plunges the two kingdoms into war. Paris’s older brother Hector (Eric Bana) leads Trojan’s armies, while undefeatable warrior Achilles (Brad Pitt) fights with Greece’s forces, led by the power-hungry Agamemnom (Brian Cox).

The scale of Troy is epic. The costumes, makeup and set design should all be commended. Not sure how much of the setting of Troy is practical vs computer generated, but it still looks impressive over fifteen years later. However, the battles are hit and miss in terms of how easy to follow they are. The big battles need some more wide shots because when you see the scope of it all it is spectacular. The one on one fights though are tense and thrilling and the actors really look like they’re trying to take each other’s heads off.

There are a lot of characters in Troy, and with all the names that often have multiple syllables it’s difficult to keep track of who is who. It’s easier to refer to characters by the actor who plays them than anything else and, whether it’s down to script or performance (or both), a lot of them aren’t that memorable or are well-rounded characters.

The dialogue is really rather clunky thanks to there needing to be so much exposition to set up all of these characters and their motivations. Some of the performances seem a little wooden at times too – Orlando Bloom being the main culprit of this. The chemistry between key characters isn’t always there either, making it more difficult to invest in them and their relationship.

For instance, the one between Briseis (Rose Byrne) and Achilles is framed as a big romantic love story thanks to the score and the dialogue. But It’s often uncomfortable to watch as Byrne and Pitt do not have any chemistry and the fact that, while he says otherwise, for all intents and purposes Briseis is his captive. It makes an unpleasant power dynamic. However, the chemistry between Bloom and Bana as the two Princes of Troy is great. Kudos to the casting department because they really do look like brothers, and they work really well as brothers too.

Troy is a decent action film if you enjoy the whole sand and sandals, epic ancient history battles kind of thing. Though it’s long and drags a bit at times, on the whole it’s an engaging watch, especially if you don’t know the whole story of Troy. 3/5.

N is for National Treasure (2004)

Archaeologist Benjamin Gates (Nicolas Cage) races to find the legendary Templar Treasure before a team of mercenaries, led by former friend and colleague Ian Howe (Sean Bean).

So I have seen National Treasure many times before, but as I don’t own a film beginning with the letter N that I had not seen before, and I rewatched the National Treasure movies the other day because they bring me joy, I thought it would do fine for this challenge.

National Treasure is just so much fun. It’s a heist movie (one of my favourite genres of movie) with history (one of my favourite subjects at school). Sure, the premise of hidden treasure and a secret, invisible map on the back of the Declaration of Independence is farfetched and kind of silly but who cares?! This premise makes a great film!

Ben along with his best friend and tech genius Riley (Justin Bartha) are the ones trying to stop Ian – their thinking is they must steal the Declaration of Independence in order to protect it. As their heist gets underway archivist Dr Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger) gets caught up in their plans and the three of them are forced to work together to figure out the clues and find the treasure before Ian does.

The main trio of characters are all great. They are all well-rounded, they each have their own skills and knowledge to contribute to finding the treasure, and they just fit together nicely. Riley isn’t related to comedy sidekick and Ben doesn’t always have all of the answers.

The action sequences are well shot and exciting, and the score, composed by Trevor Rabin, is great and the central motif just works so well. The mysteries and double crosses that are key to a heist and a treasure hunt are all there and the film goes by at a good pace so you are never bored.

National Treasure is just a fun adventure film that knows exactly what it is, and it does it incredibly well. It’s pure escapism for a couple of hours and I love it. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Georgia: The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili

Translated by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin.

Trigger warnings for rape, domestic violence, forced abortion, and torture.

At the start of the twentieth century, on the edge of the Russian Empire, a family prospers. It owes its success to a delicious chocolate recipe, passed down the generations with great solemnity and caution. A caution which is justified: this is a recipe for ecstasy that carries a very bitter aftertaste. Stasia learns it from her Georgian father and takes it north, following her new husband, Simon, to his posting at the centre of the Russian Revolution in St Petersburg. Stasia’s is only the first in a symphony of grand but all too often doomed romances that swirl from sweet to sour in this epic tale of the red century.

The Eighth Life is a sprawling epic, following one family through the generations for over one hundred years, spanning the twentieth century and beyond. It gives an insight into what life was like in Georgia when it was a part of the USSR and controlled by the powers that be in Moscow, and how the struggle for independence does not go smoothly.

The story of the Jashi family in The Eighth Life is told by Niza to her young niece Brilka. She recounts the family history, from her great-great-grandmother Stasia to her and her sister Daria, and all of the love and tragedy that befalls the family and their close friends in that time. The different members of the family experience so much heartache, it’s almost cruel or depressing how unlucky or sad their lives often turn out. Nothing ever runs smoothly for them, and there are so many instances when actions of previous generations have unforeseen repercussions on their descendants. Whether the tragedies that befall each member of the family is down to having a taste of the amazing yet potentially cursed chocolate, is down to you to decide.

This family saga takes place during the heights of communism. Various historical figures are mentioned either explicitly by name, or through their nicknames or other references. If you know more about the important figures in Russia and USSR’s history, they may be easier to pick up than if you don’t. Personally, I studied the Russian revolution in college and then only have a passing knowledge of Stalin and Lenin and know little about the other important figures of that time. I was still able to follow the passage of time, and with the Jashi family connected to the KGB and Moscow top brass, it was an interesting way to learn more about this period of history and how the extreme rules and surveillance could effect the everyday person.

At over 900 pages long The Eighth Life really is an epic novel. It takes its time to develop the many characters, but it also does a great job at keeping track of the family connections, and the little call backs to past events or conversations work really well. It’s an engaging read, and the writing is often beautiful. It’s fascinating to see how much can change in one person’s lifetime. How history can affect them in both big and small ways, and how events can shape a person so completely.

The Eighth Life is a fascinating yet often harrowing read. It doesn’t shy away from the realities of war or from how cruel people can be to one another, and how some people must close themselves off from feeling anything in order to survive. This might make The Eighth Life sound like a depressing read, and it can be at times as you wonder at how much suffering a person can take, but it also captures the many emotions people go through in life. There’s still love in its various forms, and hope, and freedom. It’s just unfortunate that those who are in love or free, can’t always experience it with the ones they want to the most. 5/5.

REVIEW: Dark Waters (2019)

Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), a corporate defence attorney, takes on an environmental lawsuit against the chemical company DuPont that exposes a lengthy history of pollution.

Dark Waters is based on a true story and that makes this film and what the characters go through, all the more amazing and terrifying.

Rob Bilott is contacted by a farmer (Bill Camp) whose cows keep dying, leading him to believe there’s something in the water from a chemical company who has a landfill nearby. This is where Bilott’s investigation starts but over time it becomes clear that it is just one part of a decade’s long conspiracy. It’s like he falls down a rabbit hole and each piece of information he uncovers is as shocking as the last, especially the lengths to which the company goes to to cover things up, and how deadly their practices are.

Something that Dark Waters does well is show how much time and effort it takes to put together this case and get justice for those affected by the pollution. Bilott’s quest for justice takes up years of his life and the scenes of him going through hundreds of boxes of documents is just as gripping as when he’s in court or trying to convince his boss that they should continue with the lawsuit. Dark Waters is also the epitome of one of my favourite things (is it a trope? I don’t think so) in films – competent people being good at their jobs. It’s Bilott’s resilience and ability to think outside the box that allows him to make so much headway even when everything is stacked against him.

All the performances are great here and many of the actors have at least one inspiring or impressive speech. Ruffalo is brilliant as a man who puts everything on the line, including his career and his homelife, to do the right thing, and continuing to fight even when this huge corporation with all their money and power throws so many hurdles in his way to try and stop him. While Dark Waters is definitely Ruffalo’s movie, the supporting cast are all terrific to. Tim Robbins and Bill Pullman deserve a mention but it’s Anne Hathaway that stood out in the supporting cast. She plays Rob Bilott’s wife and while naturally she has a smaller role, it is still an important one. These court cases and the investigation takes up Rob’s life for years, and it’s important to see how this affects his family, and while his wife is understanding of why he has to do this, she is the one keeping everything together.

It’s easy to compare Dark Waters to the likes of Spotlight and Erin Brockovich; Spotlight for Ruffalo and the investigative aspect and Erin Brockovich for the one person fighting against the big corporation. Dark Waters is easily as good as those two films, but it also stands on its own merits. It’s an engaging investigative movie where unfortunately you’re left feeling equal parts stunned and unsurprised that corporate corruption and greed can be so powerful.

It’s a film that needs to be seen, because the products that this company makes are just everyday things that are in everyone’s homes, and I for one was unaware of what the chemicals they produced could do, and how prevalent they are. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Ethiopia: The Wife’s Tale: A Personal History by Aida Edemariam

Narrated by Adjoa Andoh.

A hundred years ago, a girl was born in the northern Ethiopian city of Gondar. Before she was ten years old, Yetemegnu was married to a man two decades her senior, an ambitious poet-priest. Over the next century her world changed beyond recognition. She witnessed Fascist invasion and occupation, Allied bombardment and exile from her city, the ascent and fall of Emperor Haile Selassie, revolution and civil war. She endured all these things alongside parenthood, widowhood and the death of children. Aida Edemariam retells the story of her grandmother’s life.

The thing about time and history is it’s very easy to think that things happen so far apart from one another, but The Wife’s Tale proves that really isn’t the case. A lot can happen in one person’s lifetime, from the personal – births, deaths, careers, marriages – to the historical – changes in government, war, revolution, and technological advances. The Wife’s Tale shows how much a person can live through, the good and the bad, and how often moments in history are like a domino effect with problems or solutions can be traced back decades.

Through Yetemegnu’s life you can get an insight in Ethiopian life and culture. She was born in 1916, married at age eight to a priest who was almost thirty and had her first of nine children when she was fourteen. Her marriage wasn’t always a happy one. Never mind the fact she was a child bride (though they didn’t have a sexual relationship until she was a teenager so at least that’s something?), but her husband would sometimes hit her and she was often admonished by family when she wanted to leave.

Religion played a huge part in Yetemegnu’s life and The Wife’s Tale shows how Ethiopian Christianity was (and perhaps still is) a cornerstone to many peoples lives. Yetemegnu prays to Mary, has spiritual dreams and has so much faith in God and his plan. That doesn’t mean she just takes everything life throws at her. When her husband is arrested, she fights for him. When her lands are taken, she learns about the law and goes to the courts to fight for what is hers. When her children are endangered, she does everything in her power to protect them. She is the epitome of a strong matriarch and seeing how her experiences shape her and her actions was fascinating.

As well as learning so much about one woman’s impressive life, The Wife’s Tale covers so much of the history of twentieth century Ethiopia that you can learn so much from it. There’s the rise and fall of an Emperor, the introduction of democracy, the rise of Communism, the deadly famine as well as the fact the country was invaded by Italy in the 1930s.

I feel I learnt so much from The Wife’s Tale and seeing how one person can live through so many national and international events showed just how things are connected and that a lot can happen in one person’s lifetime. The audiobook was really good to as Andoh’s narration really brought Yetemegnu’s voice alive and made the book a lot more engaging than it might’ve been to physically read it. 4/5.

REVIEW: They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott and Harmony Becker

In 1942, at the order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, every person of Japanese descent on the west coast was rounded up and shipped to one of ten “relocation centers,” hundreds or thousands of miles from home, where they would be held for years under armed guard. They Called Us Enemy is Takei’s firsthand account of those years behind barbed wire, the joys and terrors of growing up under legalised racism, his mother’s hard choices, his father’s faith in democracy, and the way those experiences planted the seeds for his astonishing future.

It sounds cliché to say reading They Called Us Enemy was a rollercoaster of emotions, but it was. It was infuriating to hear about some of the politicians and lawyers who set in motion the anti-Japanese sentiment have gone onto having very successful careers. It was sad to see what George’s parents went through and how they struggled to keep their family together and to do the best thing for them all. And it was wonderful to see that hope can survive in even the most terrible of circumstances, and how there are people who will help others even though they themselves may get hurt. I felt myself tear up multiple times reading They Called Us Enemy. Some tears were due to sadness and frustration that people were treated like this (and are still being treated like this) while other tears were of the joy of seeing George Takei meet with Gene Roddenberry and how Star Trek really had such a positive impact on George and the world.

They Called Us Enemy does a great job of showing both how a child would deal with having to leave their home and live in confined spaces with strict rules, and how adults would be scared because they have a better understanding over what is happening to them. There’s the childlike innocence about a lot of George’s experience, at least to begin with in some camps where they were obviously not pleasant but not as harsh as their later experiences.

I learnt so much about the internment of Japanese Americans from this book. I first heard about this event in history through following George Takei on Twitter, he said something about it that got me googling and I learnt about something I’d never heard of before when I was in my early twenties. A lot of quotes and moments in They Called Us Enemy will stick with me, but one that really stood out was: “That remains part of the problem – that we don’t know the unpleasant aspects of American history and therefore we don’t learn the lesson those chapters have to teach us. So we repeat them over and over again.”

I suppose I have the “excuse” of being British and growing up in the UK that I didn’t learn bout this part of American history in school, in fact in History class we barely touched on the attack on Pearl Harbour and it’s just the catalyst for America joining the war. Naturally all our history is UK-focused. But still, as George Takei says, it’s important to know our history – both the good and the bad – so we don’t make the same mistakes again.

They Called Us Enemy is an important and impactful book but it’s also a compelling story with wonderful art that perfectly captures the innocence of childhood. They Called Us Enemy is definitely a book I’d recommend to anyone, whether they were a fan of George Takei or not. His childhood is, unfortunately, the childhood of tens of thousands Japanese Americans and it’s a story of 120,000 people that must be heard. 5/5.

REVIEW: The Aftermath (2019)

Less than six months after the Second World War ends Rachael Morgan (Keira Knightley) travels to Hamburg, Germany to join her husband Colonel Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke) where he is assigned to help with the post-war reconstruction. But tensions arise with the Germans, Stephen Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård) and his daughter Freda (Flora Thiemann), whose house the Morgan’s have moved into.

The direct aftermath of WWII and those who “lost” isn’t something that’s often seen in period dramas. While the focus is on the British couple living and working in a city in a country where a lot of the people may hate you, the backdrop of a bombed-out Hamburg is unsettling. Rachael is unprepared for what she’s walked into and was unaware that the grand house she must live in comes with German staff and the original German owner who is forced to live in the attic with his daughter.

The score in The Aftermath is beautiful – a scene where “Claire de Lune” is played is a wonderful catharsis for some characters – and the cinematography and setting is too. The Aftermath is set during winter and all of the snow looks beautiful and almost magical on the grounds of the Morgan’s new home however when there’s scenes in the ruins of Hamburg the snow and cold is harsh and unrelenting as people trying to keep warm around fires.

Keira Knightley shines as Rachael and her chemistry with Skarsgård is palpable, but it is Jason Clarke’s Lewis that is the pleasant surprise. He doesn’t think he’s any better than the Germans, he wants them to be treated with respect and to help them as they have lost just as much, if not more so, than the British. However, he’s so focused on his work that he barely talks to his wife and when he does it isn’t about the meaningful things she wants to talk about; how they’ve been while they’ve been separated, how they feel about losing someone they love.

The Aftermath is a surprisingly layered take on grief, love and relationships. The fallout from secrets being revealed isn’t as bombastic as you might expect when there’s infidelity involved. Instead the central three characters have a surprisingly mature response and if there had been more of an emotional connection to the characters, it would’ve been even more affecting.

The Aftermath is a tasteful post-war drama about people learning to cope with and move on from tragedy. It’s a quieter period drama that won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it has some beautiful performances. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Rwanda: The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil

Narrated by Robin Miles.

Clemantine Wamariya was six years old when her mother and father began to speak in whispers, when neighbours began to disappear, and when she heard the loud, ugly sounds her brother said were thunder. In 1994, she and her fifteen-year-old sister, Claire, fled the Rwandan massacre and spent the next six years wandering through seven African countries, searching for safety – perpetually hungry, imprisoned and abused, enduring and escaping refugee camps, finding unexpected kindness, witnessing inhuman cruelty. They did not know whether their parents were dead or alive.

When Clemantine was twelve, she and her sister were granted refugee status in the United States, where she embarked on another journey, ultimately graduating from Yale. Yet the years of being treated as less than human, of going hungry and seeing death, could not be erased. She felt at the same time six years old and one hundred years old.

The chapters in The Girl Who Smiled Beads alternate between a chapter set in the 90s when Clemantine was a child refugee, and the 2000s when she’s a teenager learning to acclimatise to her new life in America. It’s equal parts hopeful to see Clemantine’s life gets better but also so sad that even when she is living this new life – perhaps even the American Dream – what she went through has lasting affects on her.

The main thing I’ll take from The Girl Who Smiled Beads is that someone’s life doesn’t automatically get better once they have some semblance of stability, especially when they’ve been to dozens of countries when they are so young, looking for safety. Clemantine doesn’t hold back in describing how what she experienced shaped her as a person and continues to affect her. She takes a long time to trust people and open up to them, because she had to learn to put on a tough exterior when she was a child to protect herself and her family. Her relationship with her sister is interesting and fraught as Clemantine often resents her for some of the choices she made when they were refugees, but also knows she did her best and is so thankful that Claire never abandoned her.

After the age of six, Clemantine never gets to be a child. Because her sister Claire needs to work and get money (her resourcefulness and entrepreneurship is to be admired, especially as she founded so many black markets in refugee camps) Clemantine becomes more of a mother to Claire’s children than Claire was. Clemantine was only about nine or ten when she was caring for her baby niece; bathing her, feeding her, keeping her safe. It’s so much to put on a child but you cant hate Claire for it because she had to go from being a normal teenager to sole-caregiver to her kid sister in such a short space of time.

Clemantine must grow up so quickly and it’s incredibly difficult for her to handle all the emotions she’s feeling and the experiences she’s living. It’s not until she’s in America with her “American mom” and life that’s stable, that she can even begin to access what she’s gone through. And even then, she’s angry and scared and jealous and resentful, and so many other emotions that she struggles to put a name to and to express and understand.

The Girl Who Smiled Beads is a tough read as it is an unflinching look at the realities of being a refugee and of having no home or place to belong for over six years. It’s about the trauma Clemantine experienced, the threat of death, sickness and violence, and the people she met over the years in different refugee camps, in different countries. It’s an incredible story, and it’s so sad that it’s one that so many people have lived through, and are still living through in the refugee camps around the world.