non-fiction

READ THE WORLD – Malawi: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer

Narrated by Chike Johnson.

William Kamkwamba loved school but when he was just 14 years old, he could no longer attend because his family couldn’t afford the fees. William resorted to borrowing books from the small local library to continue his education. It was there that he discovered a book with a turbine on the front cover, and with the help of that book William began to build a windmill outside his home to get electricity in his home.

I learnt so much about Malawi and its history from The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. While I know there has been, and still is, drought and famine in various countries in Africa I’d never learnt about what happened in Malawi between 2001 and 2002. During those years, floods and then droughts caused an emergency in the country as everyone run out of food. The way the book is written gives you the factual information, like the causes of floods and drought and the different diseases that can plague the country, while also making the stark reality of the situations more affecting because of how they all relate to William and his family. William is the only son in his family, and he has six sisters so that’s a lot of mouths to feed and William never shies away from the dire situation they were all in when they were slowly running out of food. There are vivid descriptions of people losing an extreme amount of weight due to starvation and descriptions of people dying in the street. It’s shocking but never exploitative.

The book provides a lot of context about Malawi, its history, superstitions and the difficulties its people faces. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind follows William’s life as he grows up and gains fame at 19 years old for making a windmill that produces electricity for his family’s home. There is more of a focus on William growing up and the last third with him gaining fame and recognition for what he achieved unfortunately seemed a bit rushed. I did like how it was clear from a very young age that William was interested in finding out how things worked. He would take a part radios and ask people how cars engines would make cars move and was generally curious about everything.

William is an impressive young man. He never gives up and believes in what he was doing when it comes to collecting scraps to make a windmill. People in his village, and even some members of his family, think he’s crazy rummaging around in the scrapyard and saying he’s going to give his home electricity. The doubts people have about him never dents his determination or conviction, and its very satisfying when he’s able to prove people wrong.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is informative and inspiring. William Kamkwamba is a smart man who perseveres even when other people think he’s mad or is using dark magic. Hearing about how he made a windmill to provide electricity for his family, and how he also went on to build other solar or wind-powered devices to improve the lives of his family and the other people in his village was heartening. He’s an inventor and this autobiography captures his inquiring mind and his desire to make life better for his family and his village wonderfully. 4/5.

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READ THE WORLD – Myanmar: Letters from Burma by Aung San Suu Kyi

A collection of letters from the Nobel Peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, about her experience as a political prisoner, her countries traditions and the affects of inflation and corruption on its people.

The letters span about a year after her release from house arrest in 1995. Some are reflective on her experiences of being a political dissident and that of those of various other members of the National League for Democracy (NLD), while others are about the broader affects of being a political prisoner. How it can seriously affect children who only get to see a parent for 15 minutes every fortnight, or how the interrogations and solitary confinement can have mental and physical repercussions.

Each of the fifty-two letters are accompanied by an illustration by Heinn Hter. These illustrations are simple yet beautiful and help paint a vivid picture of the people and the country that Aung San Suu Kyi talks about in each of her letters.

The way Aung San Suu Kyi describes her country, its traditions and its people, is often quite poignant. Her writing is simple yet affecting and the way she can go from describing the beautiful and joyful moments, to the harsher reality that people live in when their wages can’t afford food and they must buy petrol on the black market.

I knew very little about Aung San Suu Kyi before reading this book, only that since she was no longer a political prisoner, she and her party didn’t necessarily live up to people’s expectations and there are some controversies surrounding them. As these letters are from the mid-90s, there’s still a lot of hope and belief in what the future can bring. In this moment of time at least, Aung San Suu Kyi is an eloquent and confident public speaker who doesn’t let the system stand in her way. Multiple times her street is barricaded for differing amounts of time, sometimes the soldiers let people pass to go to her house, sometimes they don’t, and sometimes they allow her to leave, when others they don’t. There’s no real reasoning behind it and it’s one of the many odd things that has become a part of her life.

Letters from Burma paints Myanmar to be a beautiful country, but one with a difficult future ahead. The way these letters are a combination of discussions of big political and social upheaval in the country, along with really mundane things like Aung San Suu Kyi being concerned with her home’s leaky roof; makes her seem like a down to earth and also very smart.

Letters from Burma is charming though perhaps a little idealistic. While Aung San Suu Kyi may have had the best intentions in the 1990s, it doesn’t necessarily mean that everything went as planned. I’m interested in reading more about Myanmar’s history and what Aung San Suu Kyi has done in the years since her release from house arrest. Still, I think Letters from Burma is a good place to get an overview of what the country was like in the mid-1990s and before.

READ THE WORLD – Syria: Butterfly: From Refugee to Olympian, My Story of Rescue, Hope and Triumph by Yusra Mardini

At just seventeen, Yusra Mardini and her older sister Sara, decide to flee their native Syria when the fighting gets too dangerous. Together they make the perilous journey to the Turkish coast and board a small inflatable dinghy bound for Lesbos. Twenty passengers are forced onto the tiny craft and soon the engine dies and the boat begins to sink. Yusra, Sara and two others jump into the sea to lighten the load and help navigate the water for an exhausting three and a half hours until they reach the shore, they save the lives of everyone on board. Butterfly follows Yusra’s life from a happy childhood, to growing up in a war-torn suburb of Damascus, through Europe to Berlin and on to Rio de Janeiro where she competes as a part of the Refugee Olympic Team.

Yusra, her sister, and the other people they met as they travelled to Europe are all so incredibly strong and brave. Yusra and Sara have to leave Syria without their mother and younger sister. While they face dangers as they deal with the sea, smugglers, and the police across Europe, there’s still the constant worry about their family who are still in a city where there’s almost constant shelling and gunfire.

It’s tough to read about Yusra’s life in Damascus after the conflict starts. It’s sad that she becomes desensitised to the sound of gunfire or explosions so quickly when she’s a young teenager. She and her family have so many near misses when it comes to dangerous situations. For instance, Yusra is training in the swimming pool when a bomb falls through the ceiling, lands in the pool, and doesn’t explode. There’s a mad rush to get as far away from the place as possible and that incident puts a stop to Yusra’s training and dreams of the Olympics for a while.

Yusra’s story does well to capture how there’s good and bad people everywhere. How someone might call the police on a group of refugees because the constant media cycle about terrorists makes them paranoid, but then others might volunteer to help people find clothes, food, and somewhere to stay in a country that’s far from home.

Butterfly does so much in disproving the narrative that some portions of the media like to present about refugees. None of them want to leave their home. Before the fighting starts, Yusra and Sara are like any other teenage girls, they go to school, they swim, their have friends and go shopping. Because we, by which I mean Western audiences, often only hear about countries in Syria when there’s conflict, and see images of bombed out cities, and people living in tents with no electricity, it’s easy to take that as face value and presume that’s what life has always been like for those people when in fact it’s the complete opposite.

Yusra’s internal battle with the word “refugee” was fascinating and explained really well. It’s so easy for her to see it as an insult or a sign she’s a charity case, for instance she struggles to decide if she wants to be a part of the Refugee Olympic Team because she feels she should get there the same way as any other competitor. As time passes though, thanks to the people she meets and what she learns about herself, she decides that it’s just a word and it doesn’t make her any lesser than anyone else.

Butterfly is well-written and engaging. I found it easy to care about Yusra, her family and new-found friends. Yusra is an inspiring young woman, but she makes it clear that while she’s learning to use her fame and voice to bring attention to the thing’s refugees go through and how they are still people with hopes and dreams, she is still the same person who loves to swim and wants to compete for her country in the Olympics. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Kosovo: Summer is my Favorite Season by Ilir Berisha

Summer is my Favorite Season is the true story of Ilir’s childhood growing up in Pristina in Kosovo. He lives with his parents, his older brother Shpetim and his little sister Fjolla but their lives are disrupted when Serbian forces take to the streets and they begin to hear rumours of villages burning. Their lives are changed when they, ethnic Albanians living in the Kosova region of the former Yugoslavia, are treated like second-class citizens when Slobodan Milošević and his government came into power.

I knew nothing about the Kosovo War in the late 1990s and about the events leading up to it that started in the mid-1980s. The fact that Kosovo isn’t recognised by Serbia as an independent state and that there’s still tensions today (in this years World Cup two Swiss footballers of Kosovar-Albanian heritage celebrated their goals against Serbia by locking their hands together and flapping their fingers, in a gesture to resemble the two-headed eagle on Albania’s national flag) isn’t something that had passed me by, but the conflict and tensions were something I didn’t understand.

As Summer is my Favorite Season is a memoir, it doesn’t go into extreme details of how and why the conflict started, instead it’s told through the eyes of a child and that makes it so much sadder and affecting. Things happen slowly and Ilir doesn’t even know or understand what a tank is when one park outside his family’s apartment building. It becomes part of the view from his window. He doesn’t understand why his father is always so focussed on the news or his mother can’t go to work, and it takes time for the affects of the conflict, which for a time was in the villages away from his family, to trickle into his life.

Summer is my Favorite Season is a tough read. The things Ilir and his family went through is heart-breaking, and as he says, they’re some of the lucky ones who managed to get out of the country. They have friends, neighbours and family who are killed. They experience police harassment, and when NATO acts there’s bombs dropping so close to their home the windows shatter. The emotions Ilir goes through during his childhood are vivid, he’s scared, angry, confused, and when it’s all over he has nightmares. The affects of the conflict on him and his family is plain to see and it’s horrible to think about the thousands of people who didn’t survive.

READ THE WORLD – Brazil: Never Stop Walking by Christina Rickardsson

Translated by Tara F. Chace.

Christiana Mara Coelho was born into extreme poverty in Brazil. She grew up living in a cave outside Diamantina with her mother, and then survived on the streets of São Paulo where they begged for food and avoided the many dangers being homeless brought. When she and her young brother are suddenly put up for adoption, everything changes for Christiana as she and her brother move across the world to a village called Vindeln in the north of Sweden, to start a new life with their adopted parents. It’s there she becomes known as Christina and must learn so many new things while missing her mother an indescribable amount.

Never Stop Walking is two stories in one and they’re told in alternating chapters. There’s Christina’s childhood, growing up in the forest and on the streets, her time in an orphanage before being adopted and moving to Sweden, and there’s her as a thirty-two-year-old, going back to Brazil for the first time in search of her biological family.

Christina is adopted when she was eight years old, and because of her time on the streets she had knowledge and memories, no young child should have. She’d seen her friends be beaten or killed, she’s gone hungry for days and learnt never to trust anyone in uniform. To say it was a tough childhood would be an understatement, but it’s clear that it is one that was full of love and laughter too. Christina adored her mother and her little brother Patrick (he was a baby when they were adopted so didn’t have the same memories or difficulties as Christina), and the three of them had fun and shared a lot of positive memories.

Seeing how Christina as a child dealt, or didn’t, with the culture shock of moving somewhere where she was the only child who wasn’t white, who had to struggle, and who had never seen snow before, was awe-inspiring in a way. Seeing how children can be so resilient, but at the same time being sad that so many children have to go through traumatic things just because where they were born. As an adult she has culture shock again, along with a whole host of other emotions, when she returns to Brazil for the first time. She’s forgotten the language, and while some memories are clear, for so long she’s never really understood how she came to be adopted when her mother was out there somewhere, wanting to be with her.

Never Stop Walking is the story of a woman finding out where she belongs and coming to an understanding that she can be both Swedish and Brazilian and that she can have a biological family and an adopted family she loves equally but in different ways. Over the course of Christina returning to Brazil and retracing her childhood, she learns many things about herself, while also affirming who she is. It’s a remarkable tale that’s told with so much raw emotion. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Wales: Boy: Tales of Childhood by Roald Dahl

The story of Roald Dahl’s childhood in his own words. Each of the things he writes about are not earth-shattering, but they did make a great impression on him, so much so that he could remember them sixty years later.

I read quite a few of Roald Dahl’s books when I was a child (my favourite was The Twits) so when I heard about this semi-autobiographical book about his childhood I thought it would be an interesting read. And that it was! Born in Cardiff in 1916 to Norwegian parents, Dahl was a part of a large family and it was fun to see what kind of scrapes he got into with his siblings and at school. It wasn’t just interesting to see what Dahl’s life was like but realising that his childhood was probably very similar to my grandparent’s childhood.

One thing about Boy that stood out was how it really highlighted how the past is indeed a foreign country. Kids tonsils were removed without any form of anaesthetic, headteacher’s beat children with a cane and when motor vehicles came to be more common place, it was perfectly natural to start driving after a thirty-minute lesson. The way Dahl talks about these events is almost blasé, though he does state how times were different then, in the early 1900’s, and how these things wouldn’t be accepted today.

Boy: Tales of Childhood is a quick read and I think it’s a great book as it’s a little snapshot into the past as you follow Dahl’s school life until he’s 20, spanning the years 1922 – 1936. The writing isn’t fancy, but these little incidents in Dahl’s are told in such a way that they are charming and a great way to introduce non-fiction to children. The pages are sprinkled with photographs of Dahl’s family and illustrations from Dahl’s long-time collaborator Quentin Blake which is fun, and you get a little insight into how Dahl got the inspiration for probably his most well-known book – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

READ THE WORLD – Norway: One of Us: The Story of a Massacre and its Aftermath by Åsne Seierstad

On 22 July 2011, Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 of his fellow Norwegians in a terrorist attack that shocked the world. Many of his victims were teenagers. Following this atrocity, questions began to appear; how and why could this happen? And who was Anders Breivik? One of Us does it’s best to answer these questions and more with extensive witness testimonies and interviews.

One of Us is a very tough read, but it’s a compelling and emotional one too. The book follows Breivik’s life, from growing up with his single mother and half-sister, to being an adult where his grand plans don’t always work out for him. This way you get an insight into his mind. It is often unsettling as you begin to almost understand why he is the way he is, but it’s still difficult to comprehend how someone can have such a hatred for those with differing political views, religion, and social ideals.

Something that I wasn’t expecting was the book to follow a few of Breivik’s young victims; Bano Rashid, Simon Sæbø, Anders Kristiansen and Viljar Hanssen. By following these teenagers from childhood, Rashid and Sæbø especially, you get to see how their lives and beliefs are the complete opposite to Breivik’s, it makes some uncomfortable and upsetting reading sometimes as all these young people had bright futures in front of them.

One of Us is made from Breivik’s own accounts that he published online, as well as interviews from friends, family and any officials that came into contact with Breivik at any point in his life. This gives you a comprehensive picture of Breivik’s mind when he set out to attack the government quarter of Oslo and the AUF-run summer camp on the island of Utøya.

There’s a sense of foreboding as time passes and the account gets closer to the day of the attack. The way the attack is described is both distressing and gripping. It’s a proper page-turner and you need a breather afterwards because of the tension and how graphic the violence is, though there’s an air of distance that allows you some breathing space, however small. There’s also a feeling of frustration as you learn about how the emergency and security services reacted on the day and the failings they had, you get the sense that there could have been less casualties if there’d been better communication between the various services.

One of Us not only covers the lead up to the attacks and that day, but the subsequent trial and how families of those who died and the survivors are, or aren’t, coping with what happened. It allows for a feeling of closure, even if those grieving may never get it themselves. One of Us is an emotional rollercoaster that offers an insight to an event and all those involved that I knew very little about. It’s a tough read but I feel it’s an important one.