history

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.

READ THE WORLD: Lithuania – Shadows on the Tundra by Dalia Grinkevičiūtė

Translated by Delija Valiukenas.

In 1941, 14-year-old Dalia and her family are deported from their native Lithuania to a labour camp in Siberia. As the strongest member of her family she submits to twelve hours a day of manual labour. At the age of 21, she escapes the gulag and returns to Lithuania. She writes her memories on scraps of paper and buries them in the garden, fearing they might be discovered by the KGB. They are not found until 1991, four years after her death. This is the story Dalia buried.

Again, my Read the World Project is opening my eyes to parts of world history I never knew about. I didn’t know that the Soviet Union deported hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians to either Gulags (prison camps) or to sparsely populated areas of the Soviet Union to provide free labour. Other people from different countries were also deported by the Soviet Union including Poles, Estonians and Latvians. Dalia’s account is tough to read but an important insight into a part of history that perhaps isn’t as well-known as it should be.

Shadows on the Tundra is about Dalia’s experience being deported with her mother and brother, the people they meet, and the terrible conditions they face in a work camp. The account spans a couple of years as Dalia and her fellow deportees are taken from their homes in trains, with no idea where they are going or why, to struggling to survive in the long icy winters in Siberia. The fact that people had the hope that they were being taken to America for a better life, especially when they were put onto boats, made what they were actually forced to experience even worse.

Dalia’s account doesn’t pull any punches. Her matter of fact way of describing the hardships they faced, the excruciating and thankless work they had to do in inhumane conditions and the way they were mistreated by those in charge, it all paints a vivid picture of human suffering.

There are moments though, how ever small and fleeting, in Shadows on the Tundra that show that Dalia and the friends and allies she made, had moments of fun or respite. They don’t last long though. With the malnourishment, the sickness, the frostbite, and the storms that bury everyone in the small barracks that they built themselves, everything looks incredibly bleak.

Shadows on the Tundra is often hard to read, in fact it’s truly devastating at times. It’s hard to imagine how anyone survived living in such terrible conditions on the edge of the Artic circle, having to steal wood in order to stay warm when the punishments for being caught was so severe. Shadows on the Tundra is an incredible account of how a young girl is forced to grow older than her years in order to survive. It will send a chill down your spine more than once.

REVIEW: Woman Walks Ahead (2017)

Catherine Weldon (Jessica Chastain), a painter from 1980s New York, travels to Dakota to paint the portrait of Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes) and becomes invested in the Lakota peoples’ struggle to keep their land.

The direction and script hit all the usual biopic buttons but it’s the relationship between and performances from the two leads that really stands out in Woman Walks Ahead. Jessica Chastain is brilliant as Catherine Weldon, she’s a determined woman but she also has her fears and makes mistakes as she attempts to learn about the Lakota people. Michael Greyeyes’s is steely and calm as Sitting Bull but there’s also a wit to him. There’s a surprising amount of amusing moments between Sitting Bull and Weldon as they get to know one another. Their relationship is one of deep friendship, but there’s also those hints of something more, if life was kinder.

The wide-open spaces of Dakota’s plains and the ever-changing sky is both harsh and beautiful. It’s a fitting setting for this story as Catherine see’s the beauty in things that most people would not, and the story of the Lakota people’s struggles is one that’s deeply tragic and the film never shies away from the atrocities committed.

As the focus is so much on Weldon and Sitting Bull, the military personnel who are all the villains of the piece, are largely cardboard cut-outs of characters. Though Sam Rockwell’s Colonel Silas Groves is an intriguing character, the reveals about his backstory comes too late to have a lasting impact. Groves and the other military men are deeply racist and when the film attempts to show Groves in a better light, it ultimately falls flat.

Woman Walks Ahead is based on a true story about an unlikely and touching friendship. The performances and cinematography are both beautiful and often haunting, but unfortunately they don’t quite elevate this film to greatness. 3/5.

REVIEW: 6 Days (2017)

In April 1980, a group of gunmen stormed the Iranian Embassy in London, taking hostage all those inside. Over six days there’s a tense standoff between the police and the hostage takers with the threat of the SAS being sent in to take back the embassy hanging overhead.

The action follows three main characters and their experiences. There’s police negotiator Max Vernon (Mark Strong) who must keep the gunmen’s leader Salim (Ben Turner) on the phone and try to keep the hostages alive while the politicians, army and police try to come up with a plan of action, SAS Lance Corporal Rusty Firmin (Jamie Bell) who is one of the team leaders of the squadron preparing for the assault and journalist Kate Adle (Abbie Cornish) who reports from the police cordon outside the Iranian Embassy. You’re introduced to these characters on the first day of the siege and get very little background information about them upfront. This means you are really relying on the actor’s performances to pull you in and they succeed in doing this.

There are many false starts for the SAS team as they get ready to attack before something happens and they’re told to stand down. You can feel the rise and fall of the tension and for a film with little action till the end, it does a good job of building the suspense and keeping you right there with these characters. When you see the SAS finally storm the Embassy it is a set piece that really pays off.

Even though 6 Days does little to change the formula of these real story thrillers, it works with the usual tropes and makes a solid, enjoyable film. It’s snappy 90 minutes runtime certainly helps as there feels to be little filler, instead focussing on the characters, their preparations and the rollercoaster of emotions they experience in such a short space of time. It might be generic, but 6 Days is an immersive and satisfying film. 3/5.