kocomoko’s #CBR5 Review #09: Zahra’s Paradise by Amir and Khalil

paradiseI like comics. This one is not your every day comic book. It is 2009, Tehran, Iran. A mother looks for her son, her son who attend a protest the day before and hasn’t come home. They do not say what the protests were about, but it becomes clear eventually that they were probably protesting the oppression of the Iranian regime.

The mother and her other son begin their search with first, physically searching for him at the protest site, then to the nearest jail, the emergency room & hospital, mortuary and grave yard administration. Each becomes a more desperate search and they also create missing person flyers. They eventually begin a process of networking with officials to get insider information, sifted with some bribes. They know the man is alive from accounts of other men who had been arrested with him, but the cruel torture & intimidation tactics are communicated but not put to ease. They eventually fall into hacking the administration system to get information and are left with only pain, sorrow and hatred.

What they portrayed in this book really happens. People disappear for no logical reason, they are murdered and the murder is covered up. Elections are rigged, Islam is used to bully the nation into being submissive. There public hangings by crane. The back of the book is compiled with 16,901 names of individuals of those who have been murdered since the establishment of the Islamic Republics of Iran. This book was just the tip of the iceberg in understanding an oppressive regime. Despite the ego and pomp, I appreciate America and for my freedom, a value not possessed by many countries out there.

kocomoko’s #CBR5 Review #08: Before Night Falls by Reinaldo Arenas

imagesThis provoking image here is Johnny Depp, dressed in drag, as a “porterette” in a Cuban prison (someone who hoops things in/out of the prison). Because of this I had Before Night Falls on my Netflix queue for goodness knows how long. I finally watched, without much knowledge of what the film was about. Based on Reinaldo Arenas’ autobiography, Before Night Falls, it is about the life of a gay Cuban writer, struggling for artistic and sexual freedom in a fascist regime.

The book begins with how Reinaldo Arenas grew up in a poor and humble countryside of Cuban. where he was influenced by his mother who was rejected by her lover/husband who impregnated her and immediately left her. He begins his sexual adventures young and the book is just rife with homosexual activity, innuendo and shenanigans. He has a chapter on different categories of gay men (married, openly gay, loyal gay and dog collar gay – one that is caught constantly). At one point, he mentions that he has had sex with over 5000 men in his youth. His passions – writing and homosexuality – are illegal under Fidel Castro and Reinaldo and his friends are in constant fear of being arrested. Undercover agents infiltrate his friends, and never knowing whom to trust, he is always in a position where he has to hide his manuscripts or has to rewrite them because they get confiscated. Reinaldo does meet a couple who reside in France and he manages to smuggle out some manuscripts with them and has his first couple novels published abroad.

Later in the book, he is arrested for homosexuality and his stories within the prison are fascinating (this is where Johnny Depp comes in, though the character is an embellishment of the movie). After Renaildo is released, some five years later, he spies in an opportunity where Fidel Castro campaigns to rid his country of “filth” – homosexuals among them. Reinaldo emigrates out of his beloved country with a hateful ruler and becomes an exile in New York, where he eventually is diagnosed with AIDS and commits suicide.

The book has paragraphs but no real chapters. Because of this, it reads like a very long run-on sentence, similar to Gabriel Garcia Marquez books. I have not read his novels, but his writing seems pretty (I can’t find a better word at the moment). His life seems chaotic, and everything and everyone seems to blend in together. I could not get a sense of how he specifically felt – he says he is happy in a certain moment, yet I do not sense that he was happy. People in his life were fleeting, and many lost his trust in end for fear of being undercover agents. His life did not seem easy unfortunately but his writing has had an impact.

kocomoko’s #CBR5 Review #07: How the French Invented Love by Mariyln Yalom

frenchI think I heard about this book on NPR – I waited for this book for months before the library finally released it to me!!

The French, clearly have a different take on love. For anyone who has watched French films, or in general any European movie, love is frequently a central theme and the sex is some times not censored as it would be in the puritanical United States (who love violence above all).

Marilyn Yalom begins with the love story of Abelard and Heloise in the early 12th century, which is as famous as the love story of Romeo and Juliet is to Americans. Each chapter brings us closer and closer to the present, and each era has a slightly different approach to love: courtly love, gallantry, tragic love, love letters, motherly (incestuous) love, gay and lesbian love, multiple lovers (open relationships). A common theme throughout the book is that the man, the woman, and her lover (male or female). The French have such a thirst for love and passion, the public turns a blind eye to the lover because they know love happens and it cannot be helped. Each chapter has literary references so you can actually read all the books she goes through and she does amazing analysis for each reference. She only dances upon the socio-cultural part, which I wish she did more, but it is clear that different forms of love are more acceptable in France than in America. I, unfortunately, do not do well with literary analysis so I kind of read it fast and did not have much time to pause on how this all related to myself and my experiences. But reading how love can take on so many forms was very satisfying and for those English majors out there, this book is for you.

kocomoko’s #CBR5 Review #06: The Pillar of Hercules by Paul Theroux

imagesIf you have ever read of Paul Theroux book, you know he is an avid travel writer (though he did some fiction). He is probably most known of his novel The Mosquito Coast, which was made into a movie starring Harrison Ford in 1986 (which sadly I have not read nor watched). However, I have read several of his travel books, including The Great Railway Bazaar, The Old Patagonian Express, The Happy Isles of Oceania (pretty good), and my favorite, Dark Star Safari. If you have read him, you know he has a penchant for trains and boats, hates airplanes and tourists (especially calling himself a tourist), loves traveling alone, and talks to a lot, and I mean, a lot of people. Generally, when I have read other travel books, other writers describe the great scenery, great food, the anomalies of being an “other”, their quirky adventures in a foreign country, differences in cultures, etc. With Paul Theroux, you barely get a sense of the scenery (in fact he purposely avoids tourists attractions and in one section, he describes a certain castle only by using a travel authors’ quote and in the next paragraph he has already moved on), but you get a deep appreciation for people who love their country and their culture. Paul Theroux also loves to ask difficult political questions, which can incense some people, which is entertaining. He also peppers his books with references from other travel writers who have been there which he reads while he travels the regions. He even goes out of his way to meet some writers, which inevitably he gets to by word-of-mouth, even the home addresses are by word-of-mouth.

In this particular book, he starts at Gibraltar, a tiny “island” (in low tide I believe it is still connected physically to Spain), as one of the original and mythical Pillars of Hercules (the other a certain North African peak that is disputed). His plan was to travel just along the Mediterranean coast from Spain to Greece to Egypt and finally to Morocco. He spends a ridiculous amount of time on the European side (at the time, due to internal strife, Algeria and Libya was not recommended for foreign tourists), so off he goes, gallivanting the coast in a Theroux fashion. Some things go as planned, some do not. Honestly, this was not as good as his other travel books. While I got a great sense of Europe, I wanted more Middle East and North Africa. Since he traverses a lot of different countries, he does not get too deep into each culture, which is a shame. His visit to Albania was fascinating however, since he visits pretty much as soon as the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha and later Ramiz Alia dissolves, and the landscape is littered with bunkers and bomb shelters.

I got this book personally signed by Paul Theroux himself and it sat on my shelf for years – I do not remember meeting him, unfortunately. For Paul Theroux newbies, I recommend starting with Dark Star Safari or The Happy Isles of Oceania first.

kocomoko’s #CBR5 Review #05: Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Oh I feel so many of you have read this book, and probably all of have you have heard of this book. It took me about 18 years to read this book, and for three of those I owned the book ( a sub goal of this year’s Cannonball Read is to read through some of the books that have been sitting on my shelf for countless years, feeling very left out). This is probably because I don’t regularly pick up fantasy/sci-fi novels. But I must say, this was an entertaining book.

Richard Mayhew lives a normal, ho-hum life in London – good, stable job, good friends, nice apartment, pretty fiance – all is good. Until he and his fiance stumble upon a dirty, bleeding girl on their way to a dinner meeting which they are late for. Richard helps the girl, Lady Door, fiance dumps him and he begins the quest to find out who killed Lady Door’s family. While London’s Tube map is only a small part of the story (much of the story happens Underground, and in tube trains), it brings to question how tube stations were named (Temple and Arch, Oxford Circus). Imagination is rife in this book, plot twists ensue, picturesque and colorful characters, all it needs to be an entertaining Neil Gaiman novel.

kocomoko’s #CBR5 Review #04: Where Am I Wearing? by Kelsey Timmerman

imagesEver wondered where your t-shirt came from? Do you know who made it? Men? Women? Children (gasp)? Kelsey Timmerman does exactly this – he goes and finds out who made his t-shirt and where it was made. First, he goes to Honduras to seek his t-shirt maker. Next, Bangladesh for his underwear maker. Then Cambodia for his pants, and flip-flops in China. And finally, his Dream Team shorts in the USA. He visits factories (or tries to), makes friends with factory workers, and treats workers to meals and adventure rides. Throughout the book he does give serious thought to what role he plays in this world by purchasing clothing made by others, what does “sweatshop” mean, and what can he do about it, if anything.

He is a nice guy, with curly blonde hair and a wide smile. He is likable and people like him. He does get to know the lives of people who work in these factories. He most certainly is well off compared to the ones he meets, but the people he meets need to work. Even the children he meets need to work. Thankfully, he does not meet abused children, but abused third world countries, where some times we can win the fight (no child laborers and safer factories) yet not really knowing what other kind of impacts we make (children have to find work elsewhere, maybe not as well paid or as safe, or economy goes down because of bad press).

This book is a very personal journey (even down to the details of his wedding to his wife, Annie) and somewhat lacks on the socio-economic details and impacts of the garment industry. For a “journalist” finding the source of clothing is not easy – such details are jealously guarded by multi-million dollar corporations. But he tries and even provides a handy to-do list of how to do it yourself. Regarless, it does bring to question the multitude of people who buy $4.99 sweaters at Forever XXI. What are you getting for $4.99? What is the world getting for it?

kocomoko’s #CBR5 Review #03: When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris

This book has been sitting on my shelf for several years now. After another Cannonball reader inspried me, I decided to read it. I think my favorite thing about David Sedrais is his voice. Of course, we have probably all heard him on NPR – his slight nasally voice, his deadpan sarcasm, a hint of boyishness. And so I read this book with this voice in my head.

His books are short stories of small things he picks up – a variety of arguments couples have outside his Paris apartment, newspaper clippings sent by fans, his fascination of the awkward moments. He really has quite the imagination for how a human may think or react. His enamor and old-married couple love for  his partner Hugh is adorable. Parts were funny, enough to stifle chuckling on the bus, but mostly it was just interesting to spend some time inside David Sedaris’s head. His last story was about his cessation from smoking during a stay in Japan. Somehow it required being in foreign place to do this, something about breaking from a routine (probably just because they could). Since I grew up in Japan, always learning what a foreigner thinks about Japan is interesting yet an odd story for him. I miss his stories about his family. Overall good, quick read, perfect for getting to sleep.