Book Review – In My Father’s Country: An Afghan Woman Defies Her Fate by Saima Wahab

I have had Saima Wahab’s memoir In My Father’s Country: An Afghan Woman Defies Her Fate on my To Read list since I saw her interview on the Daily Show several years ago. Documenting her childhood in Afghanistan and then Pakistan as a refugee before moving to the United States to further her education, become a US citizen, and eventually travel back to Afghanistan to assist US troops during the war–and given the current political climate in the US—it seemed like the perfect time to finally make myself read this book.

First published in 2012, Wahab’s memoir begins with her earliest memories of life in Afghanistan as the Soviets invaded the country and her outspoken and rather liberal father was among the first taken into custody. She never saw him again and her family fled first to her father’s people in their small village and then across the border to Pakistan where they were safer. Wahab notes that even from a small age, she rejected elements of her native culture, especially with regards to how the women were controlled and restricted by the men of their families. Sent to her uncles in the US as a teenager along with her siblings and cousins, she embraced many of the freedoms of American culture even as it caused her to struggle with holding onto and preserving her sense of her culture as a Pashtun woman. Once she begins her exploration of her time working as a civilian alongside US forces in Afghanistan–first as an interpreter and then as a research manager on an HTT (Human Terrain Team) where she helped research and map the cultural differences between the villages in Afghanistan—her narrative focuses on her struggle to reconcile the two sides of her identity, Pashtun woman and American woman. Speaking the language and understanding the culture of the locals, she worked to educate and guide both the US soldiers and the local Afghan peoples as the nations aimed to work together to rebuild her father’s country. Continue reading

Book Review – Hippie Drum by Jnana Hodson

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The closest I ever came to being considered a “hippie chick” was when I donned long flowing clothes and left my long hair loose during dress-up “spirit” days in school. The “hippie culture” is something I’ve learned about through the gray-scale photographs in textbooks and the grainy black and white footage of history documentaries. It’s different to read a first-hand account. Hippie Drum by Jnana Hodson is a novel that examines one man’s journey to define “hippie,” to find love and community and maybe even himself in those first few difficult years after college. Self-reflective and insightful, the novel feels more like a memoir.

DL is a photographer who accepts the invitation of his ex-girlfriend’s former roommate and moves into “the Ranch,” where a group of people seemingly growing by the day divvies up space and splits the rent. In various states of schooling, employment and relationships, they seem to share a desire to avoid confrontation, however frustrating or inconvenient to the individual. With countless roommates and a job with regular work (if not regular hours), DL moves between his different overlapping social circles surrounded by couples (both committed and swapping partners) but struggles to find anyone that he can connect with on a deeper level.

Self-published and offered for free download here, Jnana Hodson’s novel has many insights, but also, realistically, shows how DL can come to the same conclusion many times through many avenues. DL finds some of what he’s looking for through eastern Buddhist teachings and practices but these are mentioned sporadically more than explored in a way that would speak to readers unfamiliar with Buddhism.

The characters prove at times to be as elusive for the reader as they are for DL. Like the portraits he infrequently snaps with his camera, the images are there but the fuller sense of self is elusive (often, as DL discovers repeatedly, even to themselves). The parade of near misses with women of drastically different personalities shows how lost DL is in his search, but also the interesting things one discovers while looking for something specific.

Overflowing with hints of themes that I wish were explored in greater depth, from the generational gap between WWII and the war in Vietnam to women’s struggle to define themselves as opinions shift and options open, everything in the novel has an ephemeral feel to it. But that is largely the point. Our experiences and the people we share them with, even who we are or who we feel we are at any given moment are transitory and can never be recaptured.

The novel’s pacing and rhythm can take some getting used to. Chapter Four is a behemoth that dwarfs the other fifteen chapters but all are broken into smaller units (occasionally so short they make little sense in the larger scheme of things). All, however, contribute to a style that is quietly engaging and unavoidably distinctive. Subdued and laid back, imperfect but not trying to be, Jnana Hodson’s Hippie Drum embodies the recurring sentiment of “be cool.”

Check out Jnana Hodson’t blog, Jnana’s Red Barn, at jnanahodson.net.

Flash Fiction – Studying for Chemistry

Very few students manage to make it through their high school careers without being forced to take chemistry. No one is immune to the traps of chemistry. Honors chemistry junior year started out with twenty-one kids and ended the year with only eleven.

As terrifying as the prospect of having the midterm and final combine to form twenty percent of the final grade, it was what saved most students. Not specific enough to screw anyone up to greatly, everyone would score two grade levels higher than usual (an “A” instead of a “C” for example) and it was enough to bring up the grades from the rest of the year.

Where as in most science classes, biology or physics, students dreaded lab days because they took up study periods, in chemistry students looked forward to actually doing something. The lab write-ups were a different. Labs meant looking up expected values, which would sometimes take hours.

Towards the end of the school year, whenever labs were due everyone would convene after school in the cafeteria to figure them out together. They always started the same way, with everyone gathered at the same round table.

“I’m hungry. Does anybody want to got to the vending machine?”

“I’ve got… a buck seventy-five.”

“I’ve got some change. Here, get some chips.”

“I found a bag of candy in my purse.”

“Can someone get me a drink?”

“Sure. Whataya want?”

“Orange if they have it.”

Candy and snacks accumulated in the middle of the table, everyone contributed.

“Do you have any idea what he wants us to do for calculations?”

“I just guessed about the equations. Were you able to find an accepted value anywhere?”

“I was online for three hours last night and couldn’t find a thing. My computer froze about five times before I gave up.”

“What kind of computer do you have?”

“PC.”

“Hey, how’d you do on that last test?”

“Oh, I failed. Again.”

“No way. You failed too?”

“I think the highest grade in the class was an seventy-one.”

“Did we all do that bad?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“Did you see number five? Did he ever explain how to do that one in class?”

“I was out that day. I stayed after to ask him about it but it only made me more confused.”

“Here. I have it in my notes.”

“Damn. I messed up the structure. I had the angles all wrong.”

“Oh man. I’ve gotta go. My brother’s got practice and I got stuck with taking him.”

“Good luck finishing the lab.”

“Maybe he’ll be out again tomorrow.”

“Yeah right. Don’t get my hopes up.”

“Just remember, there’s only another month and a half.”

“Only thirty-three school days total.”

“Then we’re seniors.”

Book Review – A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis

Perhaps best known for his children’s fantasy series, The Chronicles of Narnia, there is something painfully and undeniably human about C. S. Lewis’ short reflection on sorrow, A Grief Observed. The book was originally published under the pseudonym N. W. Clerk after his wife died of cancer. In his time of grief, Lewis turned to the two things he knew best to help him cope: his writing and his faith. Written in a series of partially used notebooks he had found lying around the house, A Grief Observed is Lewis’ reflections on how he was handling the loss of his wife, how it affected the way he remembered her, the way it affected how others treated him, and what it showed him about his relationship with God.

I was hesitant going into this book because I don’t consider myself overly religious and Lewis has earned quite the reputation for his clearly Christian beliefs and for including them in his writing. It was a pleasant surprise to find that this work didn’t preach. He maintains throughout that the experience never shook his belief in the existence of God, only in the way he viewed Him. In fact, it was obvious that Lewis was writing for himself and not for any particular audience. The pain and struggle to make sense of what he was feeling are raw and honest.

There is no formal narrative structure because this is not a novel. No one is referred to by name, not even his late wife. He only ever calls her his beloved H (Lewis’ wife was actually named Joy; the H is left over from the initial release). Having been written in pieces like journal entries, it’s amazing how well the stream-of-consciousness flows. He made sure he used completed thoughts, and yet he seamlessly moves from one idea, one fear, one hope, to the next.

It’s unclear how much time passes between the start of his reflections and the conclusion he forced himself to come to. It is also unclear how long after the death of his wife he began writing this study on his grief. What is clear is that in some way, writing about his pain, helped him come to terms with his fears and doubts concerning being left behind and living with his faith every day.

A Grief Observed is very short and easily read, but it manages to be more thought provoking than many books several times its length. Not having lost anyone as significant to me as Lewis’ wife was to him, I can’t say how it would be taken by someone who could better relate to his level of loss, whether it would comfort or upset them, but in general I would recommend it.

Though there were only a few instances where Lewis addressed it, what I found most intriguing were his explorations of how his status as a recent widower and his visible grief affected the way those around him acted towards him. I’m more familiar with that side of grieving and the perspective of the primary griever was quite engaging.