Monday, May 31, 2010

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier ~ An Eye-Opening Book Despite Credibility Issues

Motivation for reading:  I decided to read Ishmael Beah's A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier after reading Simon Mac Donald's review in which he rated it a solid buy saying it will bring you tears on more than one occasion.

What is it about?
Ishmael Beah was recruited into the Sierra Leone Army when he was only 13; he didn’t really have a choice. His village had been attacked by rebels during the civil war separating him from his parents. He was forced to wander from village to village first with his brother and friends, then by himself and ultimately with another group of boys in search of food and news of his family. When he and the other boys came upon a village controlled by the army they thought they had found a safe haven, but were soon reminded the RUF rebels had killed their families and destroyed their villages. They were given an ultimatum:

“That is why we need strong men and boys to help us fight these guys, so that we can keep this village safe. If you do not want to fight or help, that is fine. But you will not have rations and will not stay in this village” (pg 106).

Once he became a soldier, he was taught to be a cold blooded killer assisted by an unlimited supply of marijuana, cocaine and other drugs numbing him to the violence. After two years, at age 15, he was released to UNICEF and rehabilitated.

Why read this book?
This book convinced me not only do I need to be a feminist, but a humanist as well. According to UNICEF, an estimated 300,000 child soldiers - boys and girls under the age of 18 - are involved in more than 30 conflicts worldwide. Child soldiers are used as combatants, messengers, porters, cooks and to provide sexual services. Some are forcibly recruited or abducted; others are driven to join by poverty, abuse and discrimination, or to seek revenge for violence enacted against themselves and their families.

For me, one of the most powerful quotes from the book comes from a speech Ishmael made at a conference in NYC:

“What I have learned from my experience is that revenge is not good. I joined the army to avenge the deaths of my family and to survive, but I’ve come to learn that if I am going to take revenge, in the process I will kill another person whose family will want revenge; then revenge and revenge will never come to an end . . .” (pg 199).

My only complaint is that the book ended too abruptly. I would have enjoyed reading more about how Ishmael got out of Guinea and what his life was like once he moved to New York City. Perhaps he will write a sequel.

Follow up:
To keep my reviews original, I try not to read additional book reviews after I’ve made a decision to read a particular book. Upon completing my review of A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, I learned there is speculation that Ishmael Beah fabricated his story. You can read about the allegations here and his response here. These allegations seem plausible, at times while reading the book I did wonder if the events weren't exaggerated, but it also reminds me of childhood stories my siblings (I have five) and I share with each other, depending on who is telling the story, the date of occurrence, the people involved and even the motive behind the story can differ. So could a young boy, brain-washed by the military, pumped up on drugs get a few details wrong – absolutely.

Do I regret reading the book?
No, but if I had known about the allegations up-front I probably would have read David Egger's What Is the What, a novel based on the real life experiences of a young refugee in southern Sudan, instead.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

How does your pay stack up against the salary guides?

I recently compared my pay with the salaries listed in three different salary guides put out by national recruiting firms. All three of the guides group salaries according to job title, geographic location and company size. I knew my salary was on the low side, but I was shocked to see it was substantially lower than the salaries listed in all three guides.

I asked my company’s HR Manager for her opinion on the validity of salary guides. She told me I had to use a guide specific to our industry. She let me borrow hers which is put out by our industry’s association. According to this guide, I am still underpaid, but once you factor in my pay-cut it wasn’t as far off as the recruiter guides. (I also noticed our HR Manager’s pay is substantially higher than what is listed in this guide.)

I decided to get a second opinion.

I asked my friend who is a recruiter. She said she sees Accountant salaries that line up pretty close to the guides and others that are way off, but many factors are involved. Publicly traded and global companies pay more. Employees that are CPA’s or have their masters and those with public accounting experience (preferably with the big 4) make more than those who don’t.

What about my salary?
She thinks I am underpaid.

How does your pay stack up against the salary guides?

Sunday, May 02, 2010

I can’t stop thinking about Nancy Horan’s book Loving Frank

Why did I decide to read Loving Frank: A Novel?
I had received word I could be in a waiting room up to three hours while my mom had routine cataract surgery. Like any avid reader, my first thought was I need to find a good book. I turned to Becky’s blog A Book a Week (one of my favorite sources for fiction selections). Her glowing review, and the possibility of an interesting conversation with my mom who’d also read the book helped finalize my decision.

What is the book about?
The book is a fictional account of the real life story of Frank Lloyd Wright’s affair with one of his clients, Mamah Borthwick Cheney in the early 1900’s. They both abandon their spouses and children; she had two and he had six, to flee to Europe for a year. She receives a divorce from her husband Edwin Cheney, but Frank’s wife Catherine refuses to grant him one. Hounded by the press even in Europe, Frank convinces Mamah to return to the U.S. where he will build her a sanctuary. True to his word, he builds Taliesin near his boyhood home in Wisconsin. Her new life is not perfect; her purpose at Taliesin seems to be cooking for the men building her new home, Frank’s mother refuses to acknowledge her, they are discovered and again hounded by the press and Mamah realizes Frank who loves beautiful things, doesn’t pay his bills. She does re-establish a relationship with her children and Edwin allows them to spend summers at Taliesin. Eventually things begin to turn around for Frank, whose work had been negatively affected by their affair and he receives a commission to design Midway Gardens in Chicago. Mamah at last seems content with her new life when tragedy strikes.

I am originally from the Spring Green area and have toured Taliesin, so I was vaguely familiar with Mamah’s story, but found the tragic ending much more horrific than I had remembered. Horan’s book closely follows the events of the real story, but since so little of Mamah’s correspondence remains she needed to invent all of the conversations. I did feel the dialogue in some of these conversations was too contemporary for the era. When I asked my mom her opinion of the book she said only, “I don’t understand how she could have left her children.” The book is more than a love story; Mamah’s love affair with Frank was the catalyst which pushed her to search for her personality (now referred to as finding yourself) and provides plenty of fodder for book-club discussions:

While in Europe Mamah meets Ellen Kay a Swedish feminist writer and becomes her translator. In discussing the translation of Ellen’s belief “WOMEN NEED TO DEVELOP their personalities from within” Mamah wasn’t sure how the translations would be received after it was published, “The focus of the Women’s movement in America is the vote and equal pay.”

Ellen responds:
“To free women from conventionalism – that should be the aim of the struggle. What good does it do if woman is emancipated but has little education and no courage to act?

Men have always been trained to have the courage to dare. Women on the other hand, are stuck being the keepers of memories and traditions. We’ve been the great conservators. Oh, I suppose we’re suppler, as a result, because we’ve learned to see many sides. But what a price has been paid. It has kept us from greatness! And most women are happy just to repeat opinions and judgments they’ve heard as if they thought of the idea themselves. It’s dangerous! Women need to understand evolutionary science, philosophy, art. They need to expand their knowledge and stop assassinating each others’ characters.” (p. 150.)

Later in the book, Mamah becomes uneasy when translating “The Misuse of Woman’s strength.” Ellen argues that:

“Women’s energy should be used for child rearing, that suffragists were wrongheaded to focus so intently on jobs and equal pay when motherhood was their legitimate work.” (p. 261.)

Mamah is displeased with Ellen’s statements and is afraid if she publishes them, it will set back the women’s movement in America. She points out:

“It’s ironic that Ellen has never married or had children, yet she feels free to expound upon motherhood, I think that’s rather arrogant.” (p. 261.)

Does Mamah have a valid point? What about today? Should women who don’t have children be able to judge women who put their children in daycare and work outside of the home?

Wasn’t there a better way?
Did Mamah have to abandon her children the way she did? Did both her and Frank have to hurt so many people? I realize there were few options for women who at the time were still considered property,* despite having a master’s degree, no one would hire a divorced woman and after the divorce her children didn’t live with her permanently because Edwin refused to allow her to have custody, but still there had to have been a better way. Even today, when a woman abandons her children for another man or to find herself she is judged harshly.

Should Mamah have been punished for the rest of her life for choosing the wrong man?
Jessie (Mamah’s single, childless sister who helped care for her children after Mamah left says:
“You had everything? You had a wonderful man who adored you, beautiful healthy children. Freedom. No money worries. A nanny and a housekeeper. You didn’t have to work and Edwin never asked a thing of you. Do you realize what you gave up for Frank Wright? The kind of life most women – most feminists – dream of?” (p. 295.)

What I can’t stop thinking about?
The issue isn’t whether Mamah should have suffered for marrying the wrong guy. The real victim in the story is Ed Cheney. He lost everything and all because he married the wrong woman.

*Frank Lloyd Wright writes a wife is still “property” in his letter to the Weekly Home News after Mamah’s death.