history

READ THE WORLD – Chad: Told by Starlight in Chad by Joseph Brahim Seid

Translated by Karen Haire Hoenig.

This very short book, it’s less than 80 pages, contains fourteen short stories.

I found the experience of reading Told by Starlight in Chad really interesting. The writing style is simple and because the stories are the kind that tell the history of a place or a people or are like a fable, even though they weren’t stories I knew, the beats were often familiar. They’re the sort of stories that could’ve been told for generations verbally before being written down as many of them contain some sort of moral or lesson.

There are stories to do with religion, creation, and vengeful gods. There are stories that seem to be based on real historical events – I had to do some googling as there were names of cities and regions of Chad mentioned, how they were created or who ruled them, and they weren’t names I was familiar with. I learnt about the Wadai Empire thanks to this book. An area to the east of Lake Chad that covered present-day Chad and the Central African Republic that was ruled by a sultan in the seventeenth century.

A lot of the stories have an almost fairy-tale quality to them. There are wicked stepmothers, talking animals, giants, kings and princesses. Some stories are sad but most end happily or with those who have suffered getting some sort of justice.

Told by Starlight in Chad is a collection of stories that are like folktales and I found them very easy to read. I also found it interesting to see how while the stories weren’t ones I knew, the kinds of messages they had were ones I learnt from different stories growing up. So while the narrative was different, the morals are universal.

READ THE WORLD – Belarus: The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II by Svetlana Alexievich

Translated by Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear. Narrated by Yelena Shmulenson and Julia Emelin.

Svetlana Alexievich interviewed hundreds of women to get their first-hand accounts of their experiences in the Second World War. What made them want to fight and what they did – whether that was on the front lines, on the home front or in occupied territories.

Being born and raised in the UK, when it came to learning about the First and Second World War, what British soldiers went through and how the wars affected the British people was the main focus. I did learn about the Allies and how Russia played a big part in the success of both conflicts but never really knew anything about the people on the front lines there.

While most of what I learnt about British Women during WWII was that they worked on the farms or in factories, or maybe became nurses or radio operators in Europe but there was definitely more of a focus on what British women did on British soil.

The women from the Soviet Union, whether they were Polish, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Russian, or whoever were on the front lines. There’s accounts from women in the typical roles like nurses, surgeons and radio operators but then there’s women who were snipers, pilots, anti-aircraft gunners, soldiers. They all had different ranks from privates to lieutenants and many of them were awarded medals and honours for their service. And the majority of these women joined up when they were teenagers, some as young as fourteen but most were between the ages of sixteen to twenty-one during the war. It’s hard to comprehend what these women saw and experienced and how it shaped their lives.

The Unwomanly Face of War is a hard book to get through as it really is often harrowing. These women tell their stories so matter-of-factly even when it concerns dead bodies and men trapped inside a burning tanks. I think listening to it on audio helped as it was easier to take a breather and pull myself out of that dark headspace.

While naturally these women’s accounts were the main focus, I did like how Alexievich inserted a little backstory every now and then as to how she found these women to interview or what the experience was like listening to them talk. I especially found it interesting how she noted that the way these women talked about their experience differed when there was a man in the room. If their husband was there, it was like they didn’t feel as free to talk about things – even if he also fought and had seen and done similar things. I think it’s because these stories are often about how the woman felt in these situations, and some of the things talked about were mundane like how there was no lady’s underwear or boots in the army to begin with and the problems that came with that.

Another thing that’s talked about is love, whether these women found love before, during or after the war and how the war affected them and their relationships. The fact that after the war some men refused to date or marry a young woman who had been at the front, who had fought for her country, because it was seen as unseemly or unladylike was infuriating. Especially as often during the war it seemed like male soldiers treated their female counterparts with respect.

I learnt a lot from The Unwomanly Face of War. I was almost constantly in awe of these women, how they were just teenagers or young women at the time and the things they fought through, is so impressive. I liked how the accounts sometimes contradicted each other, in the sense that it’s clear that while all these women experienced the war, they didn’t experience it or feel about the enemy the same way. Some pitied the fascist soldiers they had to treat while others despised them. It showed how complicated human emotions are and how sometimes in wartime not everything is easy to compartmentalise.

While The Unwomanly Face of War is a tough read, I think it’s an important one. I learnt so much and the fact that it’s an unflinching look at what so many women went through and of the war as a whole makes it more impactful. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Kazakhstan: The Silent Steppe: The Story of a Kazakh Nomad under Stalin by Mukhamet Shayakhmetov

Translated by Jan Butler and edited by Anthony Gardner.

The story of Mukhamet Shayakhmetov from childhood to his early twenties as he grows up under Stalin’s rule and how the collectivisation of agriculture forever changed his peoples’ nomadic lifestyle and caused a famine that killed over a million Kazakhs.

The Silent Steppe is the kind of historical memoir that’s written in a way that’s pretty easy to read and easy to get engrossed in. It’s not necessarily a literary masterpiece but it manages to capture so many emotions so well and it’s a really interesting insight into a time and a culture I knew nothing about. The Silent Steppe is split into three parts: “Class Enemy” which focuses on what the nomadic life was like, how it was forced to change, and how Shayakhmetov’s father was branded a “kulak” (a well-off peasant and therefore an enemy of the people) and imprisoned, “Famine” which covers the 1932-34 famine, the build up to the disaster and how eventually things started getting a bit better, and “War” when Shayakhmetov was a young man and joined the Red Army to fight in World War Two.

Shayakhmetov was born in 1922 and for his first seven years or so his life was normal, helping his father to look after the animals, travelling hundreds of miles with the rest of the family and the village as the seasons turned. Obviously a life not without hardships but positively idyllic compared to what followed.

What The Silent Steppe does well is not shy away from the horrors of what Shayakhmetov experienced. From the age of eight he was having to travel for dozens or even hundreds miles on his own in search of news of his father, or to learn about other family member. He had to do so much at such a young age as his mother either had to stay at home to look after his siblings or to find work so they could eat. The famine and its effects on him, his family and the people is described in vivid detail and it’s often unsettling. Shayakhmetov combines the personal with the factual almost seamlessly as he gives facts and figures on how the collective farms worked (or more often didn’t) and the cruelty and short-sightedness of government officials who repossessed people’s livestock, belongings and even their homes. It’s hard not to get angry when you read how livestock was taken from people and when the newly set up farms couldn’t deal with them, they slaughtered them and then the meat was just left to rot – not given to or even sold to the people. How Shayakhmetov and his mother managed to survive so much, like the fact they were homeless for so long and unable to settle anywhere due to being the family of a kulak, is a testament to their resilience but also a lot of luck and kindness from others. There’s so many other people mentioned, family and acquaintances, who didn’t survive the famine and a lot of the time who managed to survive and who didn’t was down to where people happened to be living and who or what they knew. Just pure chance.

One think that sticks out in Shayakhmetov’s story is how hospitable the nomadic Kazakh are. Their whole culture was forced to change under Stalin’s rule but so many people would still help him and his family when they could, and his family would always help others. They whole country and millions of people were forced to change and for the most part they kept their core values. Or at least, it took the combination of famine, war, and economic struggles for people to start to change.

The Silent Steppe is a really interesting book that covers a place and time I knew little about and shows how far-reaching Stalin and his policies were. How a whole nomadic culture was forced to change and never returned to what it was in such a relative short space of time is amazing – and not in a good way. The Silent Steppe is sad, informative but also a little hopeful as it really demonstrates the power of community – something the Stalin-regime tried to enforce in a structured way when it was already there.

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.