Thursday, August 30, 2007


Yes, I’m cheating. Not even time to write decent reviews of these multicultural treasures. Suffice to say if you’ve ever wondered about the history of Chinese-Tibetan relations, Sky Burial: An Epic Love Story of Tibet by popular British-Chinese journalist Xinran Xue provides vivid, jaw-dropping details of both sides’ late-20th-century perspectives. Based on a true story told to Xinran Xue by a Chinese woman who spent thirty years in Tibet searching for her missing husband, Sky Burial goes far beyond the confines of a simple love story as it explores a tapestry of fascinating and sometimes shocking traditions, lifestyles, and revelations.

Incredible story-telling also brings Edward P. Jones’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Known World alive as the very personal, specific details of how slaves were traditionally (and often casually) bought and sold as well as treated and (often brutally) mistreated in the U.S. are mined, turned over and over for your consideration. I’m in the middle of this one, and I’m learning something stunning (as in being hit by a stun gun, not enjoying a pretty sunset) about slavery—and fiction writing—on every page.

One fun, final note: BEYOND Understanding turned two this month! So far my profile has been viewed more than 1,000 times; the blog itself has been viewed nearly 12,000 times; I’ve written 145 (or so) posts and listed in my side bar more than 40 stellar resources. I hope to continue BEYOND Understanding for a long time; there seems to be no end of new sites, foundations, books, etc. designed to help spread the word about diversity, tolerance and make-the-world-a-better-place (please!) issues. Onward!

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Beyond FACTS: BIRD BY BIRD by Annie Lamott

I rarely find time to read a book more than once unless it’s for Junior Great Books, but I’m glad I returned to this treasure, Bird by Bird by memoirist and novelist Anne Lamott. I’m using it and a documentary on the author (Bird by Bird with Annie by independent filmmaker Freida Lee Mock) in a University of Colorado class on identity and artistry this fall and in the spring. I’ve been asked to present at this class as one of seven associates of the Rocky Mountain Women’s Institute, a Denver-based program that supports local writers and artists. As an associate, I’ll work on a collection of short stories during the 2007-2008 academic year and meet with other associates on a regular basis to plan an April showcase.

So onward to Annie. If you’ve ever read any of her work, you’ll understand why Bird by Bird or her other memoirs ring so true not only for their insights into the creative process but for their advice on living and simply experiencing one’s own unique life on a very personal, daily, even minute-by-minute basis. “How alive am I willing to be at this very moment?” she asks, and in the documentary she’s shown at that moment wading into the ocean, the edge of her sundress’s skirt dipping into the water as she turns and seems to inhale the essence of the scene that embraces her. In her work and teaching, she continually refers to the need for artists to remain open to the world and its many wonders, and then to apply what they observe to work at hand. Her written words coincide beautifully with what she says in Mock’s documentary, from the direct “Get real and get a little work done every day, and write what’s real” to the sublime “The way I dance is by writing.” Revisiting Bird by Bird after a good ten years is like visiting an old friend who doesn’t mind telling you again what she told you so long ago, while you thoroughly enjoy hearing again what still holds so true. Discovering this book’s complementary documentary, for me, only added to the wonder that is Annie.

Photo credit: Jo Anne Hertz

Friday, August 17, 2007


Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits follows the lives of four Moroccans who experience a harrowing attempt to illegally cross the Strait of Gibraltar to Spain. Details that reveal how each person’s life brought him/her to such a point—and where the crossing ultimately leads—provide a unique perspective on the contemporary Moroccan experience. But Hope also succeeds on another level as it explores universal longings for freedom not only from a specific place and its limitations, but from restrictions experienced—internally as well externally—due to issues of class, gender, religion, language, and cultural heritage. On yet another level, Hope explores how (and why) desperate conditions propel some into deeper despair while leading others to unlikely, surprising redemption.

I discovered Laila Lalami through her fascinating blog (which I will also call MoorishGirl!) when she was posting about her 2005 experiences at the renowned Bread Loaf Writing Conference at Middlebury College in Vermont. Now at the end of a Fulbright Fellowship in Morocco (where she was born and raised), Laila has lived in California and Oregon and will soon return to California to join the Creative Writing department at the University of California, Riverside. She notes that UCR has “the most diverse campus in the UC system” as well as a very strong creative writing department. While she sounds pleased to be headed to UCR, I’m sure everyone there will be doubly pleased to have her.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Beyond FACTS: A MIGHTY HEART by Mariane Pearl

While I haven’t seen the movie, I’m very glad to have read A Mighty Heart. Mariane Pearl holds nothing back as she explains how corruption, deception, centuries-old distrust, and discrimination—boiled down to the hatred at its core—led to the 2002 kidnapping and brutal murder of her husband, Wall Street Journal South Asia bureau chief Daniel Pearl.

Mariane Pearl also goes beyond the immediate events of her husband’s abduction and murder as she recalls her brief marriage; Daniel’s refusal to deny his Jewish heritage despite the danger inherent in claiming that heritage; their shared joy as they anticipated the birth of their first child, a son whom Daniel had named Adam; and their plans to escape for a well-earned vacation after “one last interview” in Karachi, Pakistan. But her reporting reveals even more about the complex histories of contemporary terrorist organizations, the tensions that remain between Pakistan and India and what continues to fuel them, the political figures who allow such forces to overrule common decency and international rules of humane behavior on a daily basis. All this information comes together in a complex analysis of the events that led to Daniel’s kidnapping and death. They also shed considerable light on what happened while he was held hostage: how close he came to being released: how he tried to escape, how he was denied even a pen to write a last note to his wife and unborn child, how so many people from extreme ends of the earth hoped and prayed and worked for his safe return.

And while Daniel surely possessed a mighty heart, I was led to believe throughout this book that Mariane Pearl has always believed others do, too. At the book’s end she acknowledges the thousands of well wishers from around the world who reached out to her with messages of hope, sympathy, and still more hope. I was most impressed by her descriptions of the friends and associates who came together first to help her find her husband and then to help her cope during the immediate aftermath of her ordeal. The group made an unlikely team in the Karachi house in which they worked so tirelessly for so long. Differences in nationalities, religious beliefs, military or civil backgrounds, education, and ideologies somehow combined to form a close-knit circle of support as well as an investigative team fueled by desire not only to save the life of a fellow human being, but to defeat the forces working against them. As Mariane Pearl told her friends in the end:

“You are the bravest men I have ever met. You went straight to hell, where darkness is the deepest, because you hate injustice, and racism, and tyranny. You are on the front lines of the fight against terrorism, and still, nobody knows you and how brave you are. Nobody sees how your willingness to fight the darkest threat for humanity actually makes each one of you shine as an individual.”

Mariane Pearl continues to shine in her fight to raise awareness about critical international issues. She stated many times during her husband’s captivity and many more times since that she refuses to be silenced by fear, to allow terrorists to win. By continuing to speak out about the person her husband was and what he stood for, she also gives Daniel a powerful tool against the people who killed him:

“War held no appeal for Danny or for me,” she wrote. “What interested us was the challenge presented by peace. People often see peace as the simple absence of war but it is instead the result of courageous actions taken to initiate a dialogue between civilizations. Both Danny and I saw our profession as a way to contribute to the dialogue, to allow voices on all sides to be heard, and to bear witness.”

If only we all had such mighty hearts.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Beyond FICTION: ON BORROWED WINGS by Chandra Prasad

When I read and reviewed Mixed: An Anthology of Short Fiction on the Multiracial Experience, I checked out editor Chandra Prasad’s website. I became intrigued by Chandra’s background and her upcoming novel, On Borrowed Wings, which is now in print with Simon & Schuster’s Atria Books. A Yale alum and New Haven resident, Chandra has close ties to the main setting of her story, the Yale campus, but she chose a time period that made this setting a foreign, almost foreboding place for any contemporary woman. The historic research she conducted on 1930s Connecticut, New Haven, and Yale shines through, adding significant interest to her story of a girl who replaces her brother as an enrolled freshman at the revered, all-male, university. Questions of ethnicity, class, gender, and ethics collide as the main character struggles to overcome one weighty obstacle after another in her quest not only to become a convincing young man, but to grow into her own self as an educated, inspired—and inspiring—young woman. Kudos, Chandra!

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Beyond FICTION: THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY edited by Peter Turchi and Andrea Barrett

The Story Behind the Story: 26 Stories by Contemporary Writers and How They Work is a wonderfully diverse collection of knock-out short fiction. Each story is followed by comments from the author on how the story came about. “City Codes” by (Mr.) Tracy Daugherty, director of the MFA Creative Writing Program at Oregon State University, is one of my favorites. A funny story with an underlying current (or two) of sober reality checks wins me over every time. There are so many gems in this book by phenomenal writers (I’ll return to Charles Baxter’s “The Old Fascist in Retirement” many times) who also happen to have taught on the faculty of the renowned Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers in Asheville NC, which Peter Turchi directs. The works here remind me of the fantastic fiction published on a regular basis by Glimmer Train Stories, my favorite literary magazine.

Beyond FULL: Summer Reading Fest

I’ve been reading like a maniac this summer, storing up ideas and images and concepts I’ll explore once the kids head back to school and I have longer stretches of free time. Then I’ll write like a maniac. Not exactly a specific creative plan, but one that will have to do for now. Whatever works!

While I’d love to write detailed posts on all the items that will follow in the next week, short-ish summaries will have to suffice. I’m giving each featured title an individual post so it can be archived by name. Happy end-of-summer reading!