Ardent Audible listener with a long commute!
Malala Yousafzai is on a crucial, well publicized and lauded mission to educate children. I expected "I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot By the Taliban" (2013) would be An Alarming Book with lots of Depressing Statistics that would make me feel Somewhat Superior in a Privileged Western Way, but Inspired to Help. What I didn't expect was that I would gain respect for a very different culture and enjoy a fascinating, but tragic story.
The inhabitants of the Swat Valley of northwest Pakistan often use rope-pulley bridges to cross dangerous raging rivers and deep chasms quickly. "I Am Malala" is a fast ride across what has been, for me, an uncrossable gulf.
Pashtuns have lived in the stunningly beautiful Swat Valley for more than 2300 years. Malala is a proud member of the Pashtun tribe, who are fierce fighters, culturally bound to welcome guests, and have traditions of marriage handed down for centuries. When Malala was born in Mingora, her father Ziauddin, was delighted - although tribal custom means only the birth of a boy is celebrated. Ziauddin was determined to give Malala and the other girls in Swat an education.
Swat is almost entirely conservative, traditional Muslims. Men and women are kept separated after puberty, people pray five times a day, and work outside the home is not encouraged for women. That doesn't mean that the Koran says that women shouldn't be educated - in fact, it says the exact opposite. (And let's not forget that jobs weren't encouraged for women in the Western World until 60 or so years ago.)
After 9/11, the Taliban arrived in Swat and took effective control of the area from an impotent and absentee Pakistani government. In their fundamentalist interpretation of the Koran, there is no dancing, no television, no song, and women are to be illiterate. When I read this book, I realized that the Taliban is to Islam what Westboro Baptist Church is to Christians - really out there, aching for jihad or crusade, and not actually representative of either religion.
Malala learned to love learning, and to love school - especially when the Taliban took it from her. She became the voice of girls who wanted to learn by blogging, and then by appearing as an education advocate on television. She was prominently featured by the New York Times in a documentary "Class Dismissed" (2009). I remember that well - it was the first NY Times documentary I watched.
Malala and her family never thought, as a child, that she was in danger. "Who would shoot a child?" everyone said. They underestimated the desperation of fundamentalists who find their beliefs - and therefore, their power - challenged. The Taliban shot her in the head on October 9, 2012. On October 9, 2013, she answered the question she'd been asked right before the assassination attempt: "Who is Malala Yousafzai?" with this book.
I will leave the political analysis and sociological critique to other reviewers who have handled that so adeptly already. To me, this is a really good book. I'm sure Christina Lamb, the co-author, contributed greatly to that. Malala has been attending school and has had multiple surgeries in the last year, and she could not have had the time to do everything.
I am sure this book will end up on school reading lists, alongside "The Diary of a Young Girl" (Anne Frank, 1947, posthumous). Teachers, please don't mar a wonderful story by making your students find only 'One True Meaning.' For Marie Arana, writing a reverent review of "I Am Malala" for the Washington Post on October 11, 2013, this book meant something more global and less personal. We both found profound meaning in this book - but the meanings, while complementary, were different.
Finally, this book worked better for me as an Audible than in text. Mentally, reading excerpts, I tripped over Pashto and Urdu pronunciations - which would have distracted me from the book. Archie Panjabi sounds young, and her narrative as a 16 year old works.
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On November 4, 2008, Barack Obama was elected to his first term as President. Three days later, I read a nice piece in the Washington Post by Wil Haygood. "A Butler Well Served by this Election" was the too brief story of Eugene Allen, a Black butler who served eight presidents, retiring during the Reagan administration. Later, watching the inaugural on television, the camera panned to Allen, and a commentator mentioned he was there as a special guest of the President's. Allen must have had interesting stories, but he was discrete and I thought they had died with him in 2010.
I was thrilled to find "The Butler: A Witness to History" (2013) at the top of the Audible crawl. "Wow," I thought. "A story I always wanted to hear more of, and one of the narrators is Forest Whitaker!" I like his voice so much I'd listen to him reading a refrigerator repair manual. It was the fastest Audible purchase I've made, and I don't regret it.
I thought I would be listening to a lengthier biography of Allen, or perhaps a novelization of the movie, but "The Butler" book is really a companion to the movie. According to this book, the movie "The Butler" is partially fictionalized, and a dramatic conflict was created between Allen and a radicalized son. This book first discusses how Haygood came up with the original story idea, and his lovely interviews with Allen and his wife, Helene. The book discusses Allen's relationships with the presidents he served, but briefly -it's a short book. It also discusses the tragedy Allen honored to vote for Obama, and then his physical struggle to attend the inauguration.
There's also a section on the difficulty bringing "The Butler" to the screen. Oprah Winfrey discusses the history of Blacks in film, as actors, directors and producers. I am familiar with all of the actors she mentioned, but the directors in the 1920's and 30's were new to me.
I'm giving the book a story rating of "3" because, as an Audible, it wandered. I wasn't always sure what point was being raised.
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I am a huge fan of Sheryl Sandberg's "Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead" (2013). I thought Lily Koppel's "The Astronaut Wives Club" (2013) would be the antithesis of "Lean In", but I was intrigued by a great review on NPR's Morning Edition. One of my earliest memories is of the January 27, 1967 fire that killed three astronauts on the launch pad, and I suddenly wondered how those wives had handled that.
Curious, and bolstered by Audible's no questions asked return policy in case I didn't like the AWC (as the members of "The Astronaut Wives Club" refer to the group) I decided to listen.
The AWC is a fascinating study of a place (Texas) and time (late 1950's and the 1960's) where NASA created what appeared to be the perfect community to nurture astronauts into space and eventually to the moon. The wives, followed by Life magazine and hoards of hungry press, presented a convincing facade of suburban living , cooking streak-and-eggs breakfasts, wearing exquisite dresses, with carefully coifed hair. The wives were expected to be rocks of support, not letting their own families or the rest of the world know how frightening what their husbands were doing was.
The facade was just that - a mask, and the members of the AWC joined together to support each other and mortar the cracks that inevitably formed. While their husbands competed on making history in space (and sometimes on the ground with the number of 'Cape Cookies' they could bag), the AWC supported each other with ham loaf, tuna casseroles, jello molds, and chats over plenty of coffee and cigarettes.
Most of the AWC didn't work outside the home, but most middle and upper class women didn't at the time. Being an astronaut's wife was like being an unwilling star of an unrelenting reality show.
I had initially held the members of the AWC in disdain because they seemed to derive their identities from their husbands, but like other women of that era, they did not have the options we do half a century later.
The AWC was and is a space pioneer "Lean In" group.
The narration was a bit off - not everyone could have had a Texas accent - but the pace was good.
Audible, you're safe. I won't be returning this one.
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Whether Greg Mortenson made up parts of this story or not, it is still a great read. My recommendation - listen to this first, then listen to Three Cups of Deceit by Jon Krakauer. (Three Cups of Deceit reports Krakauer's "findings" that Mortenson fabricated parts of his book and misused money donated to his cause.) You will have both sides of the story, and you can make up your own mind of what you'd like to believe.