non-fiction

READ THE WORLD – Monaco: My Book of Flowers by Princess Grace of Monaco with Gwen Robyns

The former actress shares her sense of floral aesthetics, discloses the secrets of flower pressing, examines the portrayal of flowers throughout history in the arts, and discusses the use of flowers as beauty aids and home remedies

This was the last country/book for my Read the World Project! I did feel like I was cheating a bit as this is the only book where the author isn’t of the nationality of the country the book is supposed to represent, but Monaco is just such a small country that it was impossible to find any works by native writers available in English. However, as I read My Book of Flowers I started to think that it did count, especially at the beginning where the Princess talks about Monaco’s history in relation to flowers and the local flora. Like The State in the Third Millennium, My Book of Flowers made me interesting in visiting a place I’d never really considered before which was interesting.

I’m not really a flower person. While it is always nice to see pretty flowers, I never really have any at home in a vase (I’m not sure if I even own a vase) and I struggle to keep plants alive. That being said I did find My Book of Flowers interesting and I learnt a lot from it. The Princess’s passion for flowers shines through and I think learning about something the author is clearly passionate about always makes the topic more interesting and thought-provoking. I especially liked the chapter on the legends related to different flowers. I never thought there was such a thing but considering there are myths and legends about pretty much anything in any culture it makes sense that there would be ones surrounding flowers. They’re legends about how the flower got its name, why it looks how it does, for some flowers there’s just the one story but for others there’s multiple stories as different countries have different legends for the same flower.

My Book of Flowers contains so many photographs and illustrations, there’s at least one image on each page. There are photos the Princess’s flowering pressings, the Royal gardens and their home, as well as images of paintings and furniture where flowers are heavily featured. It’s a nice book to flick through and read at a chapter or two at time or just look at the photos.

And this is my last review for my Read the World Project! Can’t quite believe it’s over. I am writing a sort of wrap-up post about this experience which should be published next week but after that this is done.

READ THE WORLD – Tuvalu: Tuvalu – A History edited by Hugh Laracy

First off as there were too many names for the title of this post, here are all the people who wrote chapters for this book: Simati Faaniu, Vinaka Ielemia, Taula Isako, Tito Isala, Reverend Laumua Kofe, Nofoaiga Lafita, Pusineli Lafai, Dr Kalaaki Laupepa, Nalu Nia, Talakatoa O’Brien, Sotaga Pape, Laloniu Samelu, Enele Sapoaga, Pasoni Taafaki, Melei Telavi, Noatia Penitala Teo and Vaieli Tinilau.

Tuvalu – A History is a history of Tuvalu, written by Tuvaluans. It’s a really interesting and accessible book as it’s not just the history and politics of the country, but it also spends time talking about the culture and the way Tuvaluans lives have – or haven’t – changed across the generations.

Tuvalu – A History is kind of a book of two halves with the first being more about the island’s origins, culture and traditions while the latter half is more about the history, politics and international relations. I liked both parts of the book and I think they complimented each other. Having the knowledge of the culture of the country and its people made the historical developments more understandable. There’s also photographs, maps and family trees which were all pretty cool too.

The first half was more of a narrative with the stories passed down the generations that explain how each of the islands that make up Tuvalu were formed and populated. Each of the eight islands that make up Tuvalu had their own story and some were related to each other – though technically there’s nine islands but one isn’t inhabited. I liked reading those stories as they’re like a snapshot of culture and history and of how people can explain the unexplainable.

The second half is interesting because as Tuvalu is such a small and remote country, naturally it took time before white Europeans “discovered” it and even when they did “discover” it and there’s written accounts about things, there’s also evidence that Europeans must’ve been there earlier but when and how is a mystery. For instance, there’s Christian Bibles on some of the islands with people know a few hymns in English but the people who must’ve taught them that or given them the Bible aren’t there. It’s kind of amusing how (for better or worse) Christianity manages to get everywhere in the world no matter how remote. Naturally when some Europeans arrive it’s to trick and take the Tuvaluans away from home to become slaves, forced to work in mines in countries like Peru. It’s horrifying to read how the population of an island went from almost 800 to about 170 in ten years because of these slavers.

Something that I hadn’t really considered before my Read the World Project was how big world events affected the countries we don’t tend to learn about in school. Sure, the clue is in the name, but it’s always interesting and insightful to see World War Two from other countries point of view – especially non-European ones as that was the focus for my schooling in the UK. It turns out that Tuvalu became an outpost for Americans as they fought the Japanese and while some thing’s they did had a positive effect on the country – like cutting down a load of coconut trees to make an airstrip – others weren’t so much, like the Americans leaving a load of unexploded munitions around so children could play with it.

Tuvalu – A History was written and published in the early 1980s so naturally the history/politics side of things finishes there. I’d love to learn more about Tuvalu and see if/how life on the islands have changed over the last 40 years. I guess there’s a good chance they’d be suffering the affects of climate change as Tuvalu is not far from the Marshall Islands and the poetry I read for that country touched on how climate change was affecting them. I think I’ve used the word “interesting” a lot here but that’s how I found Tuvalu – A History, it’s very readable and the language used is simple but engaging and I read it in one sitting because I found it so interesting. The fact it’s under 200 pages probably helped a bit too.

READ THE WORLD – Armenia: Armenian Golgotha: A Memoir of the Armenian Genocide, 1915-1918 by Grigoris Balakian

Translated by Peter Balakian and Aris Sevag.

On April 24, 1915, the priest Grigoris Balakian was arrested along with some 250 other intellectuals and leaders of Constantinople’s Armenian community. It was the beginning of the Ottoman Turkish government’s systematic attempt to eliminate the Armenian people from Turkey; it was a campaign that continued through World War I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, by which time more than a million Armenians had been annihilated and expunged from their historic homeland. For Grigoris Balakian, himself condemned, it was also the beginning of a four-year ordeal during which he would bear witness to a seemingly endless caravan of blood.

The Armenian genocide isn’t something I’d even heard of before finding this book for my Read the World Project. While I learnt about WWI in school, it was naturally focused on Britain’s involvement and little time was spent on what other people and countries that weren’t part of the main Allied forces or Central powers were going through. In fact, I don’t think I even learnt that Turkey was allied with Germany in WWI, Austria-Hungary and Germany were the ones we learnt about.

Naturally based on the subject matter Armenian Golgotha is a very intense and bleak read. Reading about what the Armenian people went through, from intellectuals to the everyday person, was very hard at times. Photos were included throughout the book which were hard to look at.

It’s wrong to presume but somehow I thought that the Armenians would be killed as quickly as possible, but that was not the case. Women were raped, people starved to death or faced countless diseases, and when hundreds of people were murdered at once, it wasn’t quick. A quote that stuck with me was from a Turkish soldier, describing how people were massacred: “It’s wartime, and bullets are expensive. So, people grabbed whatever they could from their villages – axes, hatchets, scythes, sickles, clubs, hoes, pickaxes, shovels – and they did the killing accordingly.”

The way that Balakian recounts the horrors he witnessed treads a fine line between clinical and emotional. Armenian Golgotha is full of facts and insights into the political, historical, and cultural context of the genocide which is very interesting and is – unfortunately – a reference point to other atrocities that have happened since. While Balakian never shies away from what happened it’s clear to see how his experience affected him. How the suffering he saw and experienced shaped him, and how he was still able to trust those who had been ordered to hate him and his people. A few brave Turks, who, with some of their German allies working for the Baghdad Railway were one of the many people who helped Balakian escape, showing while it’s easy to tar a group of people with the same brush, there are those who are willing to resist terrible orders.

That was one of the many interesting things in Armenian Golgotha, Balakian was often incredulous that his fellow Armenians would trust what the Turkish government was saying or promising, and the same goes for a lot of Turkish police and military, after what they’d been through. But there was still the odd person, especially those far enough away from the governments influence that may be willing to help.

Armenian Golgotha is an important account of a tragedy that I knew nothing of. I’ve learnt a lot from this memoir and the time spent on explaining historical or political contexts to certain situations was very helpful. It’s a tough read but also a compelling one.

READ THE WORLD – Liechtenstein: The State in the Third Millennium by Hans-Adam II, The Reigning Prince of Liechtenstein

The State in the Third Millennium analyses the forces that have shaped human history in the past and are likely to do so for the foreseeable future. These include religions, ideologies, military technology and economics. Prince Hans-Adam explores ways to make the traditional democratic constitutional state both more democratic and more efficient. He also discusses strategies on how to realise worldwide the modern democratic constitutional state in the third millennium. He observes that citizens should no longer be viewed as servants of the state, but rather that states be converted into benevolent service companies which serve the people as their customers.

I was very surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. It’s been a while since I’ve read a non-fiction book that wasn’t a memoir and was instead an in-depth look at a specific topic. Over the years as I’ve become more aware of the politics of my own country, the UK, and international politics I’ve had my own ideas of what I think makes a society or country work and what doesn’t so reading about what the monarch of one of the world’s smallest country’s thinks about this was super interesting. The State in the Third Millennium was written in a really simple and accessible way. Some big ideas are talked about and it covers everything from politics, history, religion, monarchies, and economics but I was never really lost.

I did prefer the first half of the book that was more about the history side of things and how historical examples of different states can guide us on how states succeed and fail today. It gives you the context for the latter half of the book which is the Prince’s suggestions as to what would make a successful state in the current millennium. The latter half was also more of the economics side of things which while still interesting, wasn’t the sort of thing I’m naturally interested so some of those ideas weren’t as easy for me to grasp and some I wasn’t sure I agreed with.

Out of all the books I’ve read for my Read the World Project I’d never have thought a book by the Prince of Liechtenstein would be one of the ones that really made me want to visit the country it’s about – but it did! It often uses Liechtenstein as an example for the various ways a state can be run and learning about how such a small country functions in relation to the rest of Europe and the World was fascinating. Also, how their monarchy work was especially interesting as it seemed like the people have a very different relationship to their royalty to what we do in the UK do to the British Royal Family. It’s like in Liechtenstein they’re not put on a pedestal and they’re a much more modern monarchy compared to the British one and that’s worked in their favour. I think the British monarchy could learn a lot about adapting to the modern world from the Liechtenstein monarchy but I’d doubt they (and the public/press reaction to them) would change any time soon.

I feel like I’ve used the word “interesting” a lot here but it’s true, I did find The State in the Third Millennium very interesting and very readable. It proposes interesting ideas about the future of countries depending how they’re run and provides specific examples of how different systems work, or don’t, depending on the country and the structure they’re built on. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – South Sudan: Making Peace and Nurturing Life: An African Woman’s Journey of Struggle and Hope by Julia Aker Duany

Julia Aker Duany’s life growing up in South Sudan, moving to America with her husband and children, and then returning to South Sudan in the 1990s to see how life has changed due to war and learning how best to help people.

Making Peace and Nurturing Life is the kind of memoir that’s very informative, not just about one person’s life and experiences but about so much more like the culture they grew up in and their country’s politics and conflicts. Julia Aker Duany describes herself as “an African, a Sudanese, a Nilotic from southern Sudan, a Nuer from Lou, a Gon from Rumjok section, a woman, a mother” and by the end of the book you really do have a decent understanding of what all those different aspects of her identity mean to her and how they have shaped her when growing up.

I found the culture shock between America and Sudan interesting because the things that she was surprised about weren’t necessarily ones that I’d seen mentioned in other memoirs or immigrant stories. Just generally Julia Aker Duany had a really interesting take on life, family, and responsibility and it was always interesting to see the connections between what was important to her as an adult to what she was taught by her mother and wider community.

Julia Aker Duany is a professor and academic who loves learning so it’s interesting and invaluable to have a woman from Sudan explain things that are usually generalised by white/Western academics. She makes a point to criticise the textbooks she learnt from in America as the were titled things like “Women in the Third World” and didn’t really differentiate between the women in these “Third World” countries, cultures, or tribes. She has an in-depth knowledge of both places and how she used her knowledge of women’s traditions to help empower women and solve conflicts in Sudan was really impressive.

Making Peace and Nurturing Life is a very readable book and it explains complex things in an accessible way. I’ve learnt a lot about many different countries and their histories through my Read the World Project but this is one where I really feel I have a firm understanding of what started the conflict between northern and southern Sudan and how events have had knock on affects for its people.

READ THE WORLD Timor-Leste: From Timor-Leste to Australia: Seven Families, Three Generations Tell Their Stories edited by Jan Tresize

A collection of stories and poems from seven families who recount their lives in Timor-Leste and how events like the Japanese invasion during WWII, being a Portuguese colony for almost 500 years, civil war between different political parties once Timor-Leste is decolonised, Indonesia invading, and finally the country gaining its independence after the people vote for it in a referendum in 1999.

Like many countries I’ve read about in my Read the World Project, Timor-Leste is one that I didn’t know anything about so From Timor-Leste to Australia was a real eye-opening and informative read. For each of the seven families there’s at least two people telling their story; sometimes their siblings, or more commonly it’s a parent and then a child. That way the reader can see how these huge events affected different generations as sometime the children were ten years old or younger when they were forced to flee their homes and move to countries far from home so for some it seemed like an adventure and the realities on their situation was lost on them.

Having members of seven different families share their experience is a good way to get a broad idea of what happened to the Timorese people. Some families were wealthier or had connections to the government while others were poor and had little support, but often they all ended up in similar situations, running from their homes and uncertain of what the future held. Those who stayed in Timor-Leste throughout the Indonesian invasion naturally had different experiences to those who managed to get to other countries. So many people still wanted to get back to their home country though, and how some of these people described what they feel is their nationality was interesting. Some now are Australian residents but feel more Portuguese because they spent their formative years there, others feel Timorese first and foremost but still feel at home in Australia or Portugal.

It was interesting to see how these families got displaced with some being separated by loved ones for years and how they adapted to their new countries. One family was in Mozambique for a time as that was also a former Portuguese colony before the revolution there forced them to flee to Portugal. A lot of the families ended up in Portugal for years, sometimes over a decade or more. This was because Timor-Leste was a form Portuguese colony and some of the families had Portuguese parents or grandparents so had connections in the country that could vouch for them. Others ended up there as it was where was deemed to be safest, living in refugee camps for years.

By the end of each of the families’ stories, most of them had ended up settled in Australia, where communities of Timorese people had begun to thrive. This was due to the Australians fighting against the Japanese in WWII and Timorese people would often hide and protect Australian soldiers when the country was occupied by the Japanese.

From Timor-Leste to Australia was quite a sad read at times as so many people in these families were imprisoned, killed, or separated from loved ones for years. People wen through such hardships and nearly every time it seemed like things would get better for the Timorese, something else would happen. The relief and joy when the people of Timor-Leste successfully voted for their country’s independence was palpable in every family member’s recollection. But the resilience of these people and how families managed to stay connected even across oceans was impressive – especially as lot of this happened from around 1942-1999, a time where phones and technology to keep in touch were not how it is today.

REVIEW: Blood, Sweat & Chrome: The Wild and True Story of Mad Max: Fury Road by Kyle Buchanan

A full-speed-ahead oral history of the nearly two-decade making of the cultural phenomenon Mad Max: Fury Road – with more than 130 new interviews with key members of the cast and crew, including Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy, and director George Miller, from the pop culture reporter for The New York Times, Kyle Buchanan.

While I generally love films and learning titbits about how they were made, there’s very few that I’d read a whole book on. In fact, Blood, Sweat & Chrome is only the second book I’ve read about a film’s journey to the big screen. The first was The Frodo Franchise: The Lord of the Rings and Modern Hollywood by Kristin Thompson which I read when I was at university and thoroughly enjoyed. I think the reasons I sought out, read and enjoyed these two books are pretty much the same. The Lord of the Rings is one of my favourite films of all time and a formative influence as I saw the first one when I was 10 years old and while I haven’t watched Mad Max: Fury Road as many times, it’s a film that blew me away when I first saw it and every time I rewatch it I’m even more impressed by its attention to detail. They are both films that in some ways shouldn’t exist, or if they did, they have almost no right to be as excellent as they are, so hearing from the people who were involved with making them, sometimes for years, even decades, is just fascinating.

Blood, Sweat & Chrome is a book I got in the post on Saturday and if I’d started it earlier that day, I would’ve read it all in one sitting. From the get go it was just so interesting and incredibly readable. Buchanan adds context and description where needed but mostly the story of how this film was made is told from various people’s perspective. Just about everyone is interviewed for this book, cast and crew, including the kind of people you’d never normally hear from like VFX data wrangler Shyam “Toast” Yadav.

So many times, I found myself with a smile on my face as the stories about the ingenuity of the crew who were making these huge vehicles or the stunt team as they worked with the cast and crew to make things look as real as possible. The fact no one was killed or even seriously hurt during the production is a testament to the director and the stunt team as while they wanted these magnificent and ridiculous stunts, they also wanted to make it safe for everyone.

Blood, Sweat & Chrome: The Wild and True Story of Mad Max: Fury Road is a great book for anyone who enjoyed Mad Max: Fury Road and wants to learn more about it, but I also think it’s a great book for people who are introduced in the film industry in general. It’s not shy about how studio interference can cause conflict between the director and their vision, or how long a film can take to be made and all the setbacks that a cast and crew can face. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Uganda: Child Soldier by China Keitetsi

China Keietsi’s story of her life as a child conscript in the Ugandan National Resistance Army starts at age eight and continues for ten years of terror, humiliation and sexual assault. After re-joining the army years later, she serves as bodyguard to the Minister for Records who is disgraced and eventually, she manages to make a new life for herself in Denmark.

Child Soldier is an incredibly difficult read. Keitetsi doesn’t shy away from the abuse she went through when recounting her story. The thing that kind of surprised me about Child Soldier is that half the book was about Keitetsi’s childhood and mistreatment before she was even recruited into the National Resistance Army. Her father and grandmother would beat her and treat her differently to her father’s other children just because her mother gave birth to a daughter and not a son. Some of her half and stepsiblings also weren’t treated well but the physical abuse Keitetsi went through by the people who are supposed to love you was heart breaking.

Through my Read the World Project I’ve read a few different memoirs from people who have gone through war and become refugees but the thing that made Child Soldier stick out in a way was her family life before she got caught up in war. The other memoirs I’ve read have had these young people have normal, caring families and a home life that a lot of people could relate to before tragedy struck. With Keitetsi’s story, it’s like the poor girl never had a proper childhood. She was abused before she even got tangled up in a war and was forced to fight and kill.

Keitetsi doesn’t shy away from describing the horrors she saw and experienced but it was interesting to see how it was written. Even though she was forced to grow up quickly, there was still only a childlike understanding of some things. She had to grow up and adapt quickly and no matter how high a rank she got in the army as she got older, there were still a lot of men who saw her a young woman that they could do with as they wish.

READ THE WORLD – Togo: An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie

Translated by James Kirkup.

Tété-Michel Kpomassie was a teenager in Togo when he discovered a book on Greenland and knew he had to go there. An African in Greenland follows his progress from Western Africa, through Europe and finally to Greenland, the journey took nearly a decade and then he spends almost two years traveling around Greenland and getting to know the people and their customs.

I feel like An African in Greenland has been on many of my TBRs over the past few years so I’m so happy and relieved that I’ve finally read it but also kind of annoyed with myself that it’s taken me this long.

It’s a very easy to read non-fiction book thanks to Kpomassie’s writing style. He documents his travels well and explains things while also sharing funny or weird anecdotes. An African in Greenland is split into four parts and the first is a brief introduction to his life and family who live in a village in Togo before he decides to make the trek to Greenland without telling his parents or having any real plan or money. It was fascinating seeing how he even got there. This was in the late 1950s that he set off and didn’t make it to Greenland till the mid-1960s. he went from country to country, staying long enough to earn money so he could make the next leg of his journey and managing to meet so many kind and helpful people along the way who’d let him stay with them for free. Trains, boats, busses, he took pretty much every form of transport bar plane.

Kpomassie was in his mid-twenties when he finally got to Greenland and while there’s obviously a big difference in what he’s used to in terms of temperature and culture, he just instantly loved the place and the people. It’s kind of fascinating how someone from a completely different part of the world can feel so at home in a totally different place. I liked how it showed the differences between southern and northern Greenland, both in terms of weather and the people’s attitudes. It makes sense as no matter how big or small a country is, the people who live in different places there have as many differences as similarities. It was interesting to see how while Kpomassie was friendly with people in the southern towns, he was also a bit disappointed as they didn’t live as he saw in his book. They were almost the metropolitan area where traditions like hunting were long gone, he had to go further north to find those who still hunted, had sleds and huskies and lived how he saw in his book.

An African in Greenland is a really interesting read and I learnt a lot about Greenland and its people. It’d be interesting to know how much life has changed for the people living in those remote regions with the internet and technology because in the 1960s it seemed a very isolated life even if there was a community of people around you. Then there’s Kpomassie as a person. While the things he learnt and shared are interesting, he as a person is just so impressive. He had a limited amount of schooling but clearly had a knack for languages as he did courses via mail and just the fact that he decided he wanted to go somewhere based on pictures in a book and no matter how many setbacks or detours he had, he kept going and achieved his dream. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Guinea: The Dark Child by Camara Laye

Translated by Ernest Jones and James Kirkup.

A coming-of-age memoir about Camara Laye’s youth in the village of Koroussa, Guinea. Laye recounts his mother’s supernatural powers, his father’s prestige as a goldsmith, and his own passage into manhood which is marked with rituals. As he gets older, he must choose between his home and his academic talents which could lead him far from his family.

The Dark Child is a very quick and easy read. As it’s a memoir it’s written in the first person and it’s written quite simply, in part presumably because the narrator in question is a young child for most of it – the book ends when he is about eighteen. Camara Laye grew up in the 1930s in a village and he was one of the first in his family to go to school. He grew up experiencing the culture and traditions of his family and people but also started to embrace the slowly encroaching modern world.

There’s one chapter that’s all about when he was circumcised when he was about twelve or thirteen and how that was the moment he, and the other boys, became men. It was interesting but surprising as I just presumed that if a child was going to be circumcised it happened when they were a baby, not when they were prepubescent. The rituals he and the other boys experienced were a huge part of life in their village and while they didn’t really know exactly what was going to happen to them, they knew other boys (or young men) who had gone through it, including their own fathers.

It was interesting to see these rituals from both an outsider and insiders’ perspective. As while most of The Dark Child felt like a present narrative from the eyes of a child, there were moments when Laye would reflect on events as an adult and explain things that he had found out since he experienced them as a child. Things that seemed like magic and real as a child were then explained and were not so scary once he found out how certain things happened. But, as he did go away from home for school as he got older, there were something’s about the traditions that he never learnt the truth about.

This, and other moments like that, shows how embracing modernity can be a double-edged sword. While family may encourage a child to take the opportunities that they didn’t have, it can mean they lose out on learning things that are traditional and part of their community’s history. The Dark Child was an interesting coming-of-age story and how it blends superstition with education shows there’s value in both for people. 3/5.