non-fiction

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.

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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.

READ THE WORLD – Bulgaria: Street Without a Name by Kapka Kassabova

Kapka Kassabova grew up on the outskirts of Sofia during the last years of Cold War Communism in the 1980s until she left as soon as she could. As Bulgaria gets ready to join the EU (the country joined 1 January 2007) Kapka Kassabova returns to her home country, to retrace her childhood steps and discover what’s become of the country, and discovers how much both it – and she – has changed.

Street Without a Name is a mixture of a personal memoir and a study of country’s history. As Kassabova states with a disclaimer at the start of the book, while it is a work of non-fiction and depicts real historic and political events, they are her take on them and how events affected her and her family. The book is split into two parts, the first is Kassabova’s childhood growing up in Sofia, and the second half is when she returns after 15 years away from Bulgaria, living in various countries including New Zealand, exploring both places from her childhood and parts of the country she’d never been to before.

I really enjoyed Street Without a Name. The way Kassabova writes about the effects of growing up in Eastern Europe with Communism being such an overbearing force in their lives is sometimes both uncomfortable and farcical. It is honest in the difficulties her parents faced, the lack of food and clothes available, and the tough examinations she had to go through in school and the dilemma of being so good you get noticed and not doing well enough.

I knew nothing about Bulgaria before I read this book. It was a country I knew the name of, probably because of the Eurovision Song Contest to be honest, but that was it. Street Without a Name is a really great insight into Bulgaria’s history, not only is time as a Cold War Communist country but it’s history in the First and Second World War and conflicts with countries in the region spanning hundreds of years. It’s interesting to see what nationalities and religions make up Bulgaria, the way different people see others and how being way from a country for so long can – or cannot – change your perception of it.

I feel I have learnt a lot from Street Without a Name. It’s an interesting insight into the complexities of nationality, belonging and understanding. Kassabova is a good storyteller, weaving mini history lessons into the places she’s visiting whether that’s a town or a church or any place of historical significance so well that they seldom feel out of place or jarring. I really enjoy this type of non-fiction book, it offers a personal take on a country and its history that makes it more engaging than perhaps reading a proper history book on the same subject.

If you know very little about Bulgaria and the effects of Cold War Communism that are still prevalent today but want to know more, I’d definitely recommend Street Without a Name.

REVIEW: Nasty Women

Nasty Women is a collection of essays and accounts on what it is to be a woman in the twenty-first century, that was originally funded on Kickstarter (I was one of the many backers).

Nasty Women is a really interesting collection of writing. While they could be called essays, the way a lot of them are written feel more like an insight into someone’s like and how their experiences relate to society as a whole. Naturally there is a focus on feminism here, but there’s also writing about racism, sexuality, class, disability and how all those things and more intersect with feminism and what it means to be a woman today.

Naturally there were some essays I related to more due to shared experiences, but it was great to have my eyes opened to things I wouldn’t normally notice as an able-bodied white woman. The thing I really liked though, was each essay managed to make me empathise with the writer as it was clear they were writing from the heart, often sharing personal fears and tragedies. that being said, some of them were quite funny and some were like hearing a friend talk rather than it being a “proper” essay.

I liked that there were essays I didn’t really expect. A few of them talked about the Punk scene, whether that was being a part of a band or just enjoying the music and atmosphere, and there was one essay, Foraging and Feminism: Hedge-witchcraft in the 21st Century by Alice Tarbuck, that talked about wise women and witches from the past to modern day – it was something I’d never really thought about before.

One line from The Dark Girl’s Enlightenment by Joelle A. Owusu, the final essay in the collection, that stuck with me was the following: ““Not everything is about race.” “Not everything is sexist.” Perhaps not. But enough of it is for it to be an ongoing problem that we simply cannot sweep under the carpet anymore.” It encapsulates that there is so much still to be done for women in this world, even in the West where sometimes the narrative is “women in X country have got it worse than you” Women around the world suffer in different ways, some may seem small to outsiders looking in, but it all hurts.

Nasty Women is a great collection of writing from twenty-two different women. Those essays that talked about Trump’s election or living in a post-Brexit Britain were often the ones that hit home for me, but there are so many touching and interesting essays in here and they are accessible too. 5/5.

MINI COMIC REVIEWS: Fun Home, Power Man and Iron Fist Vol. 1 and Filmish

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

This is a graphic novel memoir from Alison Bechdel (yes, she’s the woman who the Bechdel test is named after) about her childhood and adolescence living in her family’s Victorian home with her rather eccentric family. The memoir is mostly about Bechdel and her relationship with her father, which was both very distant and unusual, neither of them understanding one another until she came out as a lesbian, and learning from her mother that her father was a closeted homosexual.

Fun Home isn’t a linear story, with scenes being revisited when you have been given new information. It’s also both funny and farcical at types when Bechdel recounts her dysfunctional family life. I liked the moments when Bechdel looked back on different events with hindsight, you got to see what the teenage her thought at the time and her own ideas of what really happened now she’s older.

Fun Home features a lot of themes including sexuality, gender roles (Alison preferred to wear “men’s clothes” from a young age) suicide and emotional abuse. It’s an interesting and quick read but I never really felled compelled to keep reading. 3/5.

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