Brief Thoughts: Road Trip Rwanda by Will Ferguson

  • Road Trip Rwanda by Will Ferguson
  • ★★★★
  • Will Ferguson writes fiction and non-fiction, but I most enjoy his travel writing. His book, Hitching Rides with Buddha, probably had the biggest influence on my interest in Japan in that it really got me interested in the country at a time when I was just starting to watch anime and read manga.
  • Not just a history of Rwanda, but Ferguson gives a solid foundational context for those of us who don’t really know much about the genocide. He provides recommended reading for topics where one might want to learn more. I especially appreciated the global context in which he placed Rwanda – that is, within its history of colonialism and relationships with foreign powers such as France and Belgium. He’s careful to explore the genocide through these lenses, rather than simplifying the issue to ‘Africans killing Africans for the sake of it’. Ferguson’s trip also functions as an exploration of how the country has evolved (especially in positive ways in areas such as economy and safety) since the genocide.  
  • Also not just a white guy travelling around. Ferguson’s strong friendship with his travelling companion, Jean-Claude Munyezamu (a Rwandan who escaped the country shortly before the genocide began), adds a personal depth and reality to the journey. Munyezamu isn’t just a guide taking Ferguson around the country. Munyezamu’s story forms an integral part of this book.
  • Fergson touches upon the issues with current President Kagame’s rule. At the time of writing, he noted that Kagame’s term limits were coming up and he wondered how Kagame might deal with that. A news headline from yesterday: “Rwanda votes to give President Paul Kagame right to rule until 2034“. That doesn’t bode well…

Family Reads: Belonging by Adrienne Clarkson

 Welcome to October’s Family Reads! Family Reads is a monthly feature where my mom, dad or sister and I read and discuss a book. Posts with a link-up go live around the last Sunday of each month, so feel free to grab the banner and join in however you like.

Reno: Belonging: The Paradox of Citizenship is the 2014 entry in CBC Massey Lectures Series. I have a small familiarity with the series. I had read Winter by Adam Gopnik; I want to read Thomas King’s lectures. I selected Clarkson’s book because I want to explore the Massey Lectures further. I picked out one this one because I fancied I might work backwards through the lectures, because the subject seemed pertinent (I’m studying to teach ESL in Canada), and because I thought it might interest Mom as something for Family Reads. 

Mom: I had read another book in the Massey Lectures series – Blood: The Stuff of Life by Lawrence Hill. I also wanted to read another Canadian author. Reno suggested this book to me and I thought it sounded interesting as I had never really thought much about being a citizen.

Mom and I both give it 3 stars. We both found that Clarkson had us thinking about what it means to be Canadian in a context we hadn’t considered before. You’ll get more out of this discussion if you’ve read the book. Here is our discussion on citizenship, Athenian democracy and belonging and being Canadian.

Without participation, our society will not progress. We will lose all sense of of being a civil society. (90)

On Citizenship

Reno: I really liked how Clarkson breaks down the meaning of citizenship, like what it means to have citizenship and what responsibilities go with that. For example, she talks about being a citizen in the context of other citizens. I like this bit – “Then, of course, you participate as a taxpayer, as somebody who can enrol in swimming classes or join the YMCA. That is what makes you feel a part of your immediate everyday surroundings. It implies that we are citizens within the contexts of other citizens” (77). Going back a step… this topic is interesting for me because I’m learning how to teach English to new citizens, immigrants, or refugees. People who are becoming citizens and finding belonging in Canadian society. It’s a process.
Mom: And in this process, you don’t have to give up everything from before. Where you come from, who you were ‘before’, becomes part of your Canadian identity.
Reno: There was a piece about melting ice cubes, that hits on what you’re talking about. I can’t remember what page. Instead of Canada being a melting pot or a mosaic, it’s more like a bunch of melting ice cubes (granted, this is not as poetic a metaphor…), where a person can come to Canada and belong in Canada but still keep their shape as they do so. I liked that; I should have bookmarked it!

On Athenian Democracy

Mom: I found this subject interesting because I learnt about the evolution of citizenship from its infancy.
Reno: Yeah, if we consider Athenian democracy… another interesting point Clarkson made for me is how you can kind of see remnants of that time (where everyone was able to speak whenever) in the crazy Question Period we have now. It did come from somewhere! Even if it’s devolved a bit.
Mom: Now I understand the history behind it. I still wish people didn’t have to be so rude! They’re entitled to speak but it doesn’t mean they have to be rude about it.
Reno: Yeah, now there’s just too many people. Certainly there are millions more people than when they were practicing democracy in Athens. At first I thought all this political discussion was a bit disconnected from the citizenship topic. 
Mom: But you have to go farther to see how politics brings citizenship together.
Reno: Right. Which is a big part of Clarkson’s argument. Being a citizen means being politically active basically. Would you agree?
Mom: Yeah, but your level of activity isn’t defined. You can choose. You’re obligated to take part, that’s part of being a citizen, but that level of engagement varies. It doesn’t mean everyone has to become a citizen. It might just mean voting. This time it was easy to vote [Canadian Federal Election 2015] but sometimes it’s very difficult. You can’t just not vote because it’s a tough choice.

On Belonging and Being Canadian

Reno: Clarkson’s overall argument is that to be a citizen is to belong to each other.
Mom: To actively belong.
Reno: You have to engage with other citizens and help other people.
Mom: To contribute to something greater than yourself.
Reno: And that’s where that Ubuntu concept comes in. Being a citizen is not an individual activity.
Mom: Everyone contributes a bit for you to become who you become… Citizenship is an important concept when I think about my father, who was not born here. This country gave him an opportunity for better life and so he came here. He started donated blood because he wanted to give back to his country. Giving blood is a big part of being a citizen for him, of belonging in the context of other citizens.
Reno: That’s a great illustration of what Clarkson talks about. I love that she tackles what it means to be a Canadian citizen, because it used to be such a hard thing to define but now it’s becoming defined largely by this sense of belonging, I suppose? For example, she contrasts with how France and Germany have such particularly defined identities. That’s why I enjoyed the last two lectures the most. Clarkson discusses ‘being Canadian’ which is generally hard to define. She takes the time to really try to delve into this topic, this topic that can’t be defined in a couple of sentences. This particular concept of belonging is pretty unique to Canada and it’s so natural or ingrained for those of us who were born here that you don’t even think of it as being a defining Canadian characteristic.
Mom: People who become citizens, who go through the process of immigration, have a better awareness and knowledge of this concept because they really have to experience and learn about it.  People who become citizens are more knowledgeable because they have to learn about it

Belonging is an easily digestible read on a highly relevant subject. Have you ever thought about what it means to be a citizen in your country? If you’ve written a Family Reads post this month, add your link here.

Quick Review: If I Stay and Nothing to Envy

It’s been a few months since I reviewed two books in one quick review post. The only way I could think to connect these two is that they’re both for Adam @ Roof Beam Reader’s TBR Pile Challenge. These are my fourth and fifth reads for that challenge.

  •  Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
    • Rating: ★★★ [ratings guide]
    • Ugh, why am I reading books about North Korea? Okay, it’s only the second book I’ve read, but man, they are so bleak and unbelievable, in the sense that is so difficult for me to comprehend that this is happening in the world I live in, right now. That makes reading about it a different experiences from reading about WWII atrocities. It raises so many how questions: How can people be okay with this, how can someone want to rule a country like this, how can we let this happen, how do you rate a book like this; how do you react to it? Especially when there is so little you can do. I had basically the same reaction upon finishing Escape from Camp 14 (thankfully, Demick’s book is a slightly easier read because of her more general subject matter.)
    • Early in the book I thought there were too many details and characterizations that Demick possibly couldn’t know and that she had  to be using a lot of artistic license. I wondered where she got all her information from. I’m not sure why I was critical of this point at the start of this book – I know it must be the case for many non-fiction books that tell people’s stories. Gradually I settled into the narrative style and it didn’t irk me after the first few chapters.
    • A large part of this story is grounded around the change from Kim Il-Sung to Kim Jong-Il. I wonder how much of the story is out of date – or, perhaps more accurately, what has changed since Kim Jong-un took over.
    • I’d recommend reading Nothing to Envy before Escape from Camp 14, because that book has a narrower focus on one particular life within North Korea.
  • If I Stay by Gayle
    • Rating: ★★½ [ratings guide]
    • I messaged my sister immediately upon finishing this book. I wrote, “Wow I just finished reading If I Stay and I was wholly underwhelmed. It felt like a writing experiment, not a novel. I couldn’t believe it was so short!! My ebook said 217 pages but the story finished at 167. I read it in one sitting. It had some good moments but it ain’t no John Green 😛 /immediate reaction.” Let me expand on two points:
      • Emotional depths – I expected some moving tale on the level of a John Green story, from the way people talk about this book. Because it’s centered on teenage romance, however, I couldn’t get into it (although I appreciated how realistic Adam and Mia’s relationship was). I’ve never been into teen romances, even when I was a teen. It’s not that I think they’re invalid; they’re just not interesting to me. (Green’s novels appeal to me in spite of any ‘romances’ within them). Overall, I didn’t find the story that sad. It is sad…but not an emotional tearjerker.  I thought it was more intellectually interesting for me, given the discussion of life and death that it explores. There are some very good moments that gave me a swell of emotion and paused my reading (for example, Mia’s comment about her mom and dad on page 28 or her thoughts on Mr. Dunlap on page 86).
      • Shortness – This ties into the point above. The story’s shortness surprised me. I think I would have appreciated it a lot more if it was a short story or a novella, with most of the flashbacks cut out and the boyfriend storyline minimized, distilled so it’s just ruminations on life after death.
    • The information dump in the first three pages almost turned me off this one. My interest kept me going and thankfully, the story gets started right after that.
    • What’s up with the parents? They were too unbelievable for me; they never felt real. I get that that super-cool parents do exist, but these were almost like caricatures of some teen’s ideal mom and dad. 

Have you read any books about North Korea? What did you think of If I Stay (am I off base about the parents?)?

Quick Review: Thank-You for Your Service by David Finkel

Book 1 for the 2015 TBR Pile Challenge
  • Another book I might have given four stars (and I did on GoodReads) but I wouldn’t reread it.
  • For the past few years, one of the first books I read in a new year has to do with war. Not sure how that happened, but that’s why I finally sought out this book.
  • I didn’t realize this is something of a follow-up book. I wish I had read The Good Soldiers first, because it did feel like I missed the first part of the story. It’s on my list now.
  • I always feel a little strange when reading a book about such an American subject. Canada has soldiers, too, but in a different political and cultural climate than America. I wonder what reading this book would be like for an American who had strong feelings, either way, about the Iraq war. I was a bit thrown by Romeo Dallaire’s foreward and then the introduction that praised Dallaire’s work. I thought, “Wait, what is this book about again? It is about Americans in Iraq, right?”
  • This isn’t a book to read for a great reading experience. This is the kind of book you pick up so you can bear witness to the tragic stories inside, and try to come to terms with the fact that these are real people, real lives, contained within. It is not an uplifting read. This is something you should read so you can maybe start to understand. The writing is plain and factual. Recording the words and the actions of the families in this book is more than enough to make an impact. It’s a tough read, especially when you’re let into such intimate moments of these people’s lives. You’re learning about so many people in so many difficult places, and what you’re getting is just a snapshot.
  • I was most interested in the generals discussing soldier suicides and General Chiarelli effort’s to do something about it (see ~ pg. 100+). But it’s such a difficult situation. If you’re sending men into these horrific situations and then want them to be okay when they get back – what can you do? The current system is bloated and broken. It’s really sad, seeing men who finally try to find help but then can’t get it – hindered by politics, money, bureaucracy. 
  • I don’t understand the purpose of war. I admit I know very little about it, but I suspect there must be a better way to accomplish at least some of the supposed objectives of militants sent into areas like Iraq and Afghanistan. I know that the lives soldiers return to after completing their work is only one part of the picture, but after reading this book, I wish it was considered more. If I were American, I’d be thinking – what’s the point if we’re destroying our own people at the same time, if we can’t help them after they’ve given everything for our freedom (or whatever it is you thank a soldier for…)? It’s to remember what, if any good, comes out of such war.

Quick Review: I Am Malala and Life After Life

These two books are about living, about life, about living your life to make a change.

  • I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai
    • Rating: ★★★ [ratings guide]
    • Gives a lot of background and historical context to Malala’s father and her fight for the right to education.
    • I suppose somewhere in the cynical side of the world, people accuse Malala’s father of using her as a prop and they would dismiss this book as furthering her role of mouthpiece? But, I think if you read this you’ll realize she’s just a girl who wants to go to school. There’s nothing terrible about that. 
    •  It’s hard to put my finger on what, but I felt something was missing from the story. I think I wanted to read even more about Malala and her opinions on education. There is a lot of history and ‘this is what happened’, which is very informative and interesting to read, but I thought I would get more of a ‘Malala manifesto’. That being said, still give this book a go if you’re interested in the topic or Malala herself!
    • A good introduction to the struggles girls face in pursuing education in Pakistan.
  • Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
    • Rating: ★★ [ratings guide]
    • I kept reading at the start because, even though it felt slow to me, I thought I liked Sylvie (hahaha, Silly Reno).
    • I liked the earlier part of the book much more than anything else. There were some poignant parts – for example, when Ursula falls out of the window trying to fetch her doll. That part really hit home for me.
    • The whole does she or doesn’t she remember her pasts lives was a bit weird for me. It seems she has some vague feelings about what happened before? The flu scenario starts to show this (I liked how getting past the flu proved difficult). 
    • Every now and then the story skips ahead to Ursula’s life in Germany. Most of them these ‘flashfowrds’ felt abrupt and disconnected (123, 206).
    • The one tragic lifetime that Ursula experiences, where she wants to die but doesn’t (and ooh, here’s where I realized Sylvie’s quite terrible [209]) was very sad, as you realize many women have found themselves in her position. When she finally broke out of that loop I felt immensely relieved (232).
      • This is where I felt the book should have ended…I felt very disheartened when I realized I was only halfway. 
    • I became bored after 250 pages and skimmed the last 200 (although a certain character’s death did, okay, make me pretty sad).
    • Around 355, my stream of consciousness was: okay what why Germany then why hanging around how did you get here in the first place again. The Germany parts of the story just felt so disjointed to me. It’s supposed to be the main part, I think, but it felt like excess to me.
    • Overall , Life After Life was a disappointing and uninteresting read. The main plot is woven in strangely and doesn’t seem very important, or integral, or clear.