You are currently browsing the monthly archive for February 2012.

It’s that time again, time to discuss what we’ve read, are reading, and will read. Can you tell I’m an ESL teacher? Next week, we’ll discuss the difference between “should” and “must,” or “have to.” For homework, I want you to write sentences using the present perfect in contrast with the past simple and the present simple.

Wasn’t that fun?

Meanwhile, back at the original blog post, we were discussing books. Much better. This month, I read:

A Heart for Freedom. Chai Ling was one of the student leaders at the Tienanmen Square massacre in Beijing in 1989. Remember that? She has written her memoirs, which include her life up to that point and some fascinating details of how events unfolded. The story of her eventual escape from China, including minor plastic surgery to disguise herself, is gripping. She goes on to describe her gradual disillusionment with her former friends and their infighting and desire for glory, finding a faith that sustains and heals her, and her current work to end China’s One Child policy, which she calls gendercide. It’s a really good book.

Heft. I loved this book. There are 2 narrators; Arthur Opp, who weighs 550 pounds and hasn’t left his house in years, and Kel Keller, a 17 year old baseball star who’s being considered by the pros. What they have in common is Charlene, Arthur’s former student and the love of his life, and Kel’s mother. They don’t know of each others’ existence because Arthur and Charlene’s relationship has been mostly conducted in letters, and neither of them are entirely open and honest with the other. It’s really well written and a really good story. I absolutely cared about the characters in it, so much that I broke my heart over Kel, a fundamentally decent kid who carries big burdens. Additionally, it isn’t maudlin or sentimental and it doesn’t turn out like you think it will, but it’s much more satisfying even if the ending leaves you wanting more. It’s just really really good. Go get it.

The Secret Adversary (Tommy and Tuppence Mysteries). So I was sick, really sick, and I could hardly raise my head off my pillow. And I discovered that if I just sort of squinted one eye open I could read books on the Kindle app on my iTouch, which lay on the bed beside me. I didn’t have to hold a book, just move my finger occasionally (frequently, since the itouch screen fits about 2 paragraphs) to “turn” the page. Don’t I sound pitiful? Please send chocolate. It helps.

Anyway, I also discovered that there are stacks and STACKS of free Kindle books THAT I WANT! So I got quite a few of them. I don’t really like reading on my iTouch because it’s too small and also I haven’t converted to ebooks, possibly because I don’t really have an ereader, possibly because I like real books. Regardless, I read this delightful early Tommy and Tuppence while I was sick. I think it was the second book Agatha Christie ever wrote. Lots of fun! Then I threw up, but it had nothing to do with the book. Also I got it for free, even though the link says 95 cents. I also reread Pride and Prejudice, which you’ve all read umpteen times so if you want to discuss it in comments you can but I hardly think you need a plot synopsis at this point.

The Old Romantic A story about families and second chances. Nick left his working class family behind 20 years ago when he went to Cambridge and changed his name, but now they want back in his life although everyone is unsure about it. Unsparing, well-written,  funny, heart-warming without being sentimental or expected.

The Demi-Monde: Winter The army has created the Demi-Monde as a simulation for training purposes, but it’s become its own world and a nasty world it is, populated by all of our world’s most horrible people without regard for time period. The president’s daughter from our world is captured and another young woman is sent to rescue her. There are millions of puns and echoes of real-life events and it’s very clever. This book is really well done but I didn’t like it all that much, although the plot was gripping enough that I had to finish it. Then, of course, it was a cliff hanger. Sigh.


A Good American: This one is rather delightful so far. It’s telling the story of the protagonist’s family’s arrival in the US, starting with his grandparents. They’re German, fall in love over music, flee her disapproving parents, end up in Missouri. I’m only about 1/4 in.

To Read:

Carry the One

Forgotten Country

What to Look for in Winter: A Memoir in Blindness

Bess Crawford Read Along I’m really excited about this one. I read The Confession last month and enjoyed it and was happy to have found a new author to love (actually, Charles Todd is a mother-son team which you have to admit is a really fun idea. And yes, I did tell Elliot my new plans for our lives). They’re doing a mystery series about Bess Crawford, a plucky ww1-era nurse. So far they’ve got 3 out; the 3rd will come out in paperback in May and a new one will be released in June. To celebrate, Book Club Girl is doing a read along, and I’m doing it too. Join me!


What have you been reading, or are you about to read, or have you read, or will you have read by this time next month?

How to Get a Good Night’s Sleep:

1. Go to Mona’s about 5. Hang out. Eat a quba, just because.

2. Eat heartily at about 7:30. Eat more than you should, because they are just so insistent.

3. Have a mug of strong Iraqi tea (black tea with cardamon and sugar) about 8:30.

4. Have a cup of Turkish coffee at 10.

5. In bed by midnight!

Surprisingly, I did sleep well. Caffeine 24/7 is my motto, after all. I dreamed that I’d parked wrong and gotten our car towed AND forgotten Donn’s birthday, which I have never done because it’s only 3 days before mine. I don’t feel that stressed, but this is a real stress dream. He wouldn’t care if I forgot his birthday, but Donn would kill me if I got our car towed!

Sleep in General:

We stopped by Harold and Maude’s at about 1:30 on Saturday afternoon, unannounced. Harold was still in his pyjamas, so we averted our eyes but he wasn’t embarrassed and welcomed us in. They were very happy to see us. “We were going to call you this afternoon,” they told us, “but we were waiting till after 2 in case you were sleeping.”

I’m sitting in Fiona’s spotless apartment. On the way home from class, she invited me up for tea. Fiona’s a widow, probably in her 60s, who is struggling with making progress in English but she never misses a class. Her daughter tells me in part it’s because class is the highlight of her week. She has 9 adult children scattered around the globe. Although 4 of them are here in this city, everyone is busy and working and becoming American, and she’s used to living in a big house with extended family there all day every day, children running in and out, working as a seamstress. Now she shows me fabric she bought to make new dresses for the Kurdish New Year, glittering and sequined and lacy, shot through with gold or silver. She holds up black against my skin, says that would suit me best because I’m white. “She’s like the Mauritanians,” I think, remembering how they always tried to dress me in orange or bright purple instead of the softer hues I favored, since I object to looking washed out.

She brings out tea and nibbles—a bowl filled with some sort of large bean, steamed, sprinkled with salt and a Kurdish spice mix, and a fried rice-and-egg pastry. To keep me entertained, she puts on home videos, and I see her husband, and her sister’s family, and many of her children and grandchildren. The video is, of course, hand held—I am watching picnics and dances in living rooms and tea being poured and children jumping on couches and shrieking. Suddenly I begin to feel desperately ill. I don’t know if it’s the unusual food (unlikely, considering what I normally eat) or if I’m getting motion sick or if I’m finally getting the bug that’s been going round the Iraqi community for weeks now. I stick it out as long as I can, pretending to watch, almost losing it as the video switches to being filmed from a moving car. Finally I am able to leave. I make it home and to bed, where I spend the next 24 hours although I feel better the next day, just wiped out. Mona, hearing I’m sick, sends me lentil soup and quba, which is surprisingly settling for my stomach.

I am determined not to be sick on Thursday afternoon, however, because we’ve been invited for lunch with a man who told me his wife is an excellent cook. I like this man, who is always praising his wife. She shares a name with a woman who came to class this summer, and when we mentioned that, he said, “Which “Anna” is better? Mine? Yes?” which made us all laugh.

He welcomes us in, beaming, open arms. I think again how much I love Arab hospitality. I am going to write a book about it. (I’ll call it “3 Cups of Chai.” What?) Their apartment is hung in red and pink hearts, for Valentine’s Day. I hand over a bouquet of pink tulips, congratulating myself on getting the colour scheme right.

He hasn’t exaggerated his wife’s cooking abilities. “She’s a professional,” he says, and he’s right. I am going to tell you what I had for lunch, at the risk of boring you or driving you wild with envy. (I love my life) (Even if I don’t love my jean size) There was chicken schwarma, which we ate with Arabic bread, cooked to a slight crunch and perfectly flavored. Dolma too, and briyani. (They went all out. This is basically 3 meals. HOW do I reciprocate?) A sort of bean and tomato soup as well. She also served tiny pickled eggplants stuffed with walnuts and sweet chili. They were totally unexpected and really delicious. After this we had tea, then baklava and dried figs and orange-chocolate cake and coconut macaroons and chocolate cookies. I managed to eat baklava but nothing more, and I really oughtn’t to have eaten that, but you know how much you love feeding people who eat your food? I try to be a good guest. It’s sort of my gift.

It’s a great afternoon. His English is good and he has great stories to tell. He jokes that when they got here, they couldn’t sleep without being lulled by car bombs going off in the night! There’s a ring of truth there though, since his small boys carry scars on their heads from a time a bomb went off outside their apartment building, slamming them and their mother into a wall. He tells us, “Come back often.” We will, we promise, but next time at our house. “Ok,” he agrees, “but before next time you have to come here for mishwi.”

I have friends from all over the political spectrum, and sometimes that makes me crazy when I’m checking my Facebook. I’ll have one loudly bashing the conservatives, followed by another loudly bashing Obama and everything he might even possibly stand for. Today was a case in point; an old college friend posted a quote from Obama about Assad, the beleaguered president of Syria who in my opinion is a monster, and compared Obama to Assad. According to this fine-except-for-the-insanity-part individual, the only reason Obama isn’t gunning us all down, a la Syrian civil war, is because we are armed.

I know. Over the top much?

You will be proud of me. I didn’t join in the fun; I stayed calm, did some deep breathing. Posted a gentle response, about how we really have no clue what it means to live under terrible government.

Last night Mona* and her husband dropped by, with gifts as always. They are the most generous people on the planet. I made turkish coffee and put out dried fruit and chewy ginger cookies and the 4 of us sat around chatting. Mona and her family lived in Egypt for 5 years while they waited to be processed as refugees to come to America. This isn’t unusual; typically when a family flees a country, they go to a neighbouring country and apply for refugee status with the UN. For some reason, in Egypt it takes longer than a lot of other places. Refugees don’t have much recourse in these halfway destinations; they’re not allowed to work, don’t get government assistance. Our talk turned to the Egyptian Revolution. Surprisingly, she wasn’t sympathetic to the rebels.

“I know Mubarak did horrible things, but he did good things too,” she says. We take some time figuring out she is searching for the word infrastructure. She tells me after she and Larry were married, they lived with his family in one room. This is typical in Iraq, she says. She tells me that Mubarak built apartment buildings for young couples, where their rent was subsidized and they could begin their lives together. There were hundreds of these complexes, and it really impressed her. “Saddam did nothing good for Iraq,” she says. “Only war. War. War. War.”

Mona has told me before that she hates nighttime, darkness. When she was a child in the 80s, the war between Iraq and Iran (started by Saddam) was going on, and evening is associated forever in her memory with fear and sirens and bombs falling and the death of childhood friends. Then there was the invasion of Kuwait. After that, there were sanctions. She and Larry talk about how difficult life was for everyday Iraqis then, while Saddam and his cronies continued to live in style, wanting for nothing.

Later, she shows me a beautiful gold ring she’s wearing, telling me Larry got it for her when the ultrasound announced that they were having a son. She had a lot more jewelry but she’s sold most of it. The wedding ring set, a family heirloom with an enormous diamond set in white gold, costing more than $5000, was sold so that the family could survive in Egypt. “I don’t even care,” Mona tells me. “If it means keeping my family alive, I will sell anything.” Sometimes her mother asks her about the set, and Mona lies, because she knows her mother would have a hard time with it. I laugh. I can relate.

“But really, Elizabeth,” she tells me. “You don’t know what it’s like to live like that.” I agree. I know I don’t. I remember the various coup d’etats, both successful and attempted, when we were in Mauritania; one night I saw a plane flying over the palace and watched red tracer bullets trying to take it down. The walls shook with explosions. In the morning we saw tanks on the streets. It lasted two days and we were never in any real danger. How can I compare that to her wondering, when her husband left for his job delivering pharmaceutical supplies between two cities, if he would ever return? How could I ever compare that to the death threat delivered under their door, saying if Larry didn’t leave they would cut off his head and kill their whole family?

Meanwhile, many of my American friends are unaware of what’s going on in the world outside our borders. I’ll mention fighting in Nigeria, or bloodshed in Syria, where it’s so bad that Iraqi refugees are fleeing back to the comparative safety of Baghdad, where it isn’t really safe at all. And people look at me blankly and go back to talking about American politics and how wrong the other side is. Which is fine too, I suppose. It’s just that I wish people wouldn’t be so loud about their opinions, so divided, when the reality is that life is so much quieter here, and there are good people to be found on both sides, and we can recognize that without people having to die.

*for those of you just joining us, I work with Iraqi refugees and I always change their names, for the sake of their privacy.

February 2012

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