Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Book Travels - Destination: Africa

I've read a few books this month that all focus on areas of Africa - a couple of meh reads and one I enjoyed more than I expected. So, first the ones I added to my resale box (my resale box is for reads that I don't feel a need to add to my permanent collection, so I pile them up for trade or resale value, periodically trading a stack of my "meh" reads for a few new "oh I heard good things about this one!" reads. ;-)


1) The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo -- allegorical (at least I understand it's suppose to be allegorical) story of a shepherd boy who has a dream / premonition that he is to travel to the pyramids in Egypt in search of a treasure. It doesn't seem to be strongly defined what is meant by "treasure" but in reading you get the sense it's of a metaphorical nature. In the process of his journey, he learns lessons about life, love, himself, etc. There are a few basic ideas you've heard countless times, just retold in a different way here: Sometimes you have to risk what you have to get what you want; It's about the journey, not the destination; Live in the moment... that sort of thing. This isn't a bad read, I just didn't find it as mystical and life changing as so many led me to believe it was suppose to be. In fact, parts of it just had me thinking of Aladdin and The Cave of Wonders :-P

2) The Pyramid by Ismail Kadare. The Pharoah Cheops initially decides he wants to buck tradition by not having a burial tomb built for him. His royal advisors go to great lengths explaining the social and cultural importance to the Egyptian people as a whole, keeping this tradition alive. Cheops eventually decides he will have a pyramid. In fact, he commands that his pyramid be the "highest of all, most majestic". Over the course of the story, the reader sees Cheops become increasingly obsessed with the construction of his pyramid, to the point of madness. Later, Cheops' son, Chephren, goes on to have a similar infatuation with the Sphinx. Kadare also gives a story behind the pornographic grafitti that actually has been found in some of the pyramids. In theory, this story sounds awesome, right? Well, something fell flat for me. I've always loved Egyptian history but a book winning a prestigious literary award is no guarantee it's a brilliant read for everyone. This felt like the equivalent of one of those "action" movies where there's a bunch of dialogue and talk of showdowns but very little actual action going on. Only here, there wasn't even much dialogue. There were just descriptions of people having conversations. SNORE. 

The book I did enjoy:

So, some of you may remember awhile back when I did a post on Joy Adamson and her husband of Born Free fame. This is a biography of their friend, neighbor and fellow wildlife conservationist, Joan Root. Root was born in 1936 to an English father and a white South African mother. Root grew up helping her parents with their safari touring company. It was while giving one of these tours that she met her husband, wildlife documentary filmmaker, Alan Root. Alan and Joan went on to develop quite a filmography of well loved documentaries, some narrated by notable voices such as Orson Welles, David Niven, and James Mason. Alan and Joan also developed Balloon Safaris, Ltd., the first tourist balloon company offering tours over Kenya and Tanzania.

Joan Root with her critters

Much like when I was reading the stories of Joy Adamson's adventures in the wilds of Africa, I was impressed by what badasses the Roots were. Joan's photos make her seem so fragile and slight of frame but this woman woke up one night to being bit by one of the deadliest varieties of scorpion -- her only response was "a quiet 'oh', swallowed two aspirin and went back to sleep", woke up the next morning and went back to work; she also took puncture wounds TO THE FACE from a hippo's canine teeth, nearly having her eye gouged out (her husband had part of his calf muscle on his right leg ripped open by same hippo-- which he later had to get skin grafts for, as well as having his foot and ankle caught between the hippo's molars); she worked through having myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular disorder; in later years, after she and Alan split, she bravely took on poachers in her community and put a task force together to fight them, even though by then she was in her "golden years".  As for Alan, he would sometimes risk his or Joan's personal safety in order to get an amazing shot for his educational documentaries (such as when they provoked a cobra just to get a clear shot of its venom spraying through the air on film -- another ballzy moment for Joan -- some of the venom hit her eyes. She simply wiped it away and "asked if reshoots were needed" WOW!). In one instance, Alan ended up losing an index finger because he took a bite to the hand while educating some people on puff adders. Also on their list of amazing was the fact that these two were the first people to ever fly over Mt. Kilimanjaro in a hot air balloon! What the views up there must be like!

Joan and Alan Root

The Roots had a number of familiar faces they counted as friends -- not only the Adamsons, but also Mary & Louis Leakey (the Roots also had a safari photography business with the Leakeys' son, Richard, who later went on to head up the Kenya Wildlife Conservation Dept.) They gave Dian Fossey the first tour of the area that would be her gorilla study base camp. In fact, the site was an area first used by the Roots when they did a study of their own of gorillas in the wild. Alan also filmed some of the gorilla chase scenes for 1988's Gorillas In The Mist starring Sigourney Weaver as Fossey. Speaking of films, Joan Root served as one of the animal handlers on the set of Out Of Africa. There was also a Jackie O. story I had never read anywhere else before: Alan Root once gave a balloon ride to Jackie, Caroline and John Jr. (the kids were teenagers at the time). Caroline and John rode with one of Alan's balloon operators in one balloon while Alan and Jackie rode in another. Alan's balloon got caught in a grass fire, ran into a phone line and flipped over. Everyone feared for Jackie O but she ended up walking away from the crash with just a bruised foot!

Sadly, like Joy Adamson and Dian Fossey, Joan was murdered in 2006 (just weeks before her 70th birthday) for reasons connected to her conservation work. This book not only gets into the important work the Roots were doing but also the why and how behind the demise of their marriage (the way this woman handled how wrong her husband did her and how she managed to have a friendship with him years later is remarkable btw) and the details behind Joan's murder. The way Mark Seal describes what Joan's final moments might have been like were terrifying. I can only imagine how horrific it must have felt to have been an older woman, living primarily alone save for her animals and a couple of staff members, and as Seal explains, to have to face a death that in hindsight was possibly avoidable. Or maybe it wasn't avoidable, but maybe it just would have been delayed. Hard to say.  Seal writes that Root's murder was most likely a $100 contract hit. How sad is that, that such a life can be snuffed out and made nonexistent in the blink of an eye.

There were a few parts in this book that got a little dull but this book is definitely worth reading, if only to hear the story of this brave woman. Inspiring character, unbelievable strength inside and out.

Though it has nothing to do with Africa, I also recently read Mutant Message Down Under by Marlo Morgan, about a woman (Is it Marlo? Is it not?) who takes a walkabout with a tribe of Aborigines through the Australian Outback, and in the process learns about what's important in life, what's important to her, philosophical thoughts on modern society, modern medicine, etc. This book had some controversy some years back about whether it was fact or fiction. Marlo herself says in the intro that it's a factual story that's fictionalized to protect the true identities of the Aboriginal people she traveled with. I've since read elsewhere that others say she made the whole thing off and pissed off a bunch of Australian natives in the process. Who knows. Either way, I wasn't much impressed with it. I was interested in the story of the native people because I've read similar books which I really love, in particular Tales Of A Shaman's Apprentice by Mark J. Plotkin, a fascinating nonfiction read. Mutant Message fell waaaay short of such a book. I got so annoyed with Morgan's self-important tone that I just said "I'm over this" and went on to something else in the old TBR pile. Best to find out for yourself though. You may love it. To be fair, I'm hard to impress when it comes to anything that falls in the New Age / self-help arena. I'll admit, I'm pretty skeptical about such books, but every now and then I find one that speaks to me. Hence, Tales Of A Shaman's Apprentice having a permanent spot on my shelves!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

YAAY OLYMPICS.... and... now what?

A few days late posting this, been battling a cold this past week.... on the mend now, so we're back on!

Everyone come down from their Olympic high? Man, the U.S. had a pretty impressive run, huh! 104 precious metal necklaces -- Woot Woot! Though there are a number of sports there that still baffle me (the kind of sports that it seems like people strive to perfect but only perform at the Olympics), I still look forward to seeing what happens in Rio.

In the spirit of the Olympics, I finally read this book that's been untouched on my shelf for quite awhile now : My Sergei by Ekaterina Gordeeva (who went by the nickname Katia). I originally got the book because I remember my mom and I watching Ekaterina and her husband skate on television when I was a kid. My mom loves watching figure skating ( I think I watched mainly because in my mostly tomboyish heart, I secretly wanted to have similar pretty, flowy dresses). I remember hearing of the tragic death of Sergei and being shocked at his young age. I even have a memory of watching some skating program (now that I think of it, it may have even been an Olympic performance of some couple) where they panned to Ekaterina sitting in the audience with, what seemed to my young self at the time, quite a sad, wistful look on her face (I think this was only shortly after Sergei's death). I was always curious about the backstory but you know how things go. Some books get pushed back time and again for more modern "must reads". So, in the spirit of the Olympics (though admittedly this may have been more appropriate to read for the Winter Games), I dedicated a couple days to this short read.

For those of you unfamiliar with this couple, they were a pretty familiar couples figure skating team back in the 80s and 90s. Originally from Russia, they did a number of tv specials before and after becoming two time Olympic Gold Medalists. They toured the world with friends and fellow skaters such as Scott Hamilton and Kristi Yamuguchi. Then suddenly in 1995, Sergei dropped on the ice while rehearsing a new routine with Ekaterina. Doctors were unable to save him, determining that he died from a massive heart attack (stemming from undetected coronary heart disease). He was only 28! Gordeeva now does shows to raise awareness for heart disease and the importance of heart health and has since remarried -- to none other than fellow Russian ice skating champion, Ilia Kulik

This book details the whole span of their life together, from the very first time they skated, through development of the friendship and later the courtship, her struggle with widowhood,  as well as the backstory stuff within a sport you never really think about as a spectator (such as one story where she tells of Sergei having a muscle injury that affected his ability to lift things, so she basically goes on a starvation diet to get as small as possible to give him as little weight as possible to struggle with, even though she was already super tiny naturally!). It also gives one the sense of what life was like in USSR Russia vs the United States in the same time period --- made me realize that no matter how bad we think we have it, it's really not as bad as it could be!

I was also struck by how young these two really were... to go through all that they did, I mean. Makes the story all the more heartbreaking to think of it. Your mid to late 20s... your life has barely begun. So sad. And yet there was such a beautiful love there. Maybe because it seems so immortalized when it happens so early in life. Ekaterina's description of the last night of Sergei's life, her own terror, was incredibly hard to read, thinking how panicked I would be myself in such a situation but later the story of the memorial show done for Sergei was memorably powerful. Though part of me did picture the ending of Ghost for a moment. :-)

I think that Sergei's soul now lives somewhere. In our religion, we have two very important days after a death: the ninth day and the fortieth day. From the day of the death until the ninth day, the deceased is still with us, and people will dream about him very clearly. Then on the ninth day the deceased starts his journey to the gates that open to Paradise or to Hell. God will decide where He wants this person. On the fortieth day, he leaves us. He's free. He now has his own spiritual life.  ~~ Ekaterina Gordeeva

Though it's clear by her writing (and by the fact that she's Russian, of course) that English is not Gordeeva's first language, some of the writing being awkward and slightly jarring in some places, maybe more simplified than what you're used to --  there's a still a pretty resonating story to hear here. Go back in time a bit, relive the fun as well as the struggles of the 90s. I know I miss those years :-).

Katia skating at Sergei's Celebration Of Life 
Music is Mahler's Symphony #5 IV Adagietto.
She describes this performance in the final pages of her book:

 I had always liked this music, which is sensitive and tender and also a little bit sad. Marina {Sergei and Katia's choreographer} told me that Mahler wrote this music when he was proposing to his wife; that, in fact, the music served as his proposal; that he gave it to her, and she sat down at the music and played it, and the music did his speaking for him. His wife immediately understood....When we first listened to it on the ice, she said to me, "I don't know what to do." Then we listened more and the music told us what to do. Marina said to me, "Imagine that you are skating with Sergei for the last time," Then, "Now you've lost him, you're missing him, you're looking for him and can't find him. You get on your knees and ask God why it happened. Your legs feel broken, as if they have no strength. You cannot move. Everything inside you feels broken too. You must ask God for some help. You must tell God you understand that life goes on, and now you have to skate. You must thank him for giving you Sergei for half of your life, the most beautiful time in your life. This is about how all people can get up from their knees in the face of adversity, can go forward, can have the strength to persevere. You can find someone to life for. You can have a life of your own now." ... As the time neared for my solo number, I thought about the words Sergei used to say to me when we were getting ready to skate. We always kissed each other before we skated, we always hugged and touched each other. Now, in the tunnel waiting to go on the ice, I didn't have anyone to touch or kiss. It was a terrible feeling to be standing there by myself. Only Dave, the tunnel attendant for Stars On Ice, was there watching, and I could tell he was thinking the same thing: How sad to see her standing here without Sergei. But then I thought of what Marina had said: Just trust Sergei, and he will help you...But as soon as the Mahler music started to play, and I skated out into the darkened arena, the bad feelings went away...
There's more to this but I will let you read it on your own. Hard to discount the idea of an afterlife after reading how her husband helped her get through the routine and how she never wants to do this number again, to maintain the special, otherworldly feelings she experienced with Sergei in those moments.

This book will also serve as a reminder to thank your spouses for the love they give you each day, never knowing if it may be the last.

Love you, sweet Finbar.