#50. For Bread Alone (Mohamed Choukri)

Book: For Bread Alone, by Mohamed Choukri; translated from the Arabic by Paul Bowles

Genre and Year of Publication: Autobiography; English translation 1973

Where I got it: The Open Door used book shop

Length: 168 pages

Briefly, it’s the autobiography / memoir of a boy born into a poor family in Morocco in 1935, who experiences extreme hardship, including near-starvation; runs away from his violent father at age 11 and becomes a street-kid, involved in stealing, smuggling and prostitution; and at age 20 meets [in jail] someone who encourages him to learn to read and write.  (He later went on to be professor of Arabic Literature at Ibn Batuta College in Tangier, but the book stops at age 20; later books take up the story).

Comments: I bought this book in a second-hand shop specifically with the African reading challenge 2014 in mind.  But then I avoided it for several months, fearing the theme, not wanting to read about poverty and hardship, not wishing to get emotionally wrecked by the desperation described in the blurb.  However, when I did pick it up and open the cover, I whizzed through the book and did not find it at all emotionally manipulative.  Quite the contrary, it is rather understated.  The author lets the facts speak for themselves.  He does not try to impose his own adult, educated conclusions on the events surrounding his youth.  Neither is he, apparently, angry or self-pitying. 

This book was banned in Morocco from 1983 to 2000.  It is not difficult to see why.  No country, let alone a Muslim country, would be happy to see an account of one of its youths involving frequent near-starvation (one of the hardest parts of the book to read is about the starving teenager diving into sewage-filled water to retrieve and eat bread that someone had thrown away), sex, alcohol, and drugs.  And there is a LOT of sex.  From the (relatively innocent – ?) pre-pubescent boy who climbs a tree to spy on a girl bathing naked, to fantasies about various older women, to masturbation, sex with prostitutes, sex as a prostitute, sex with a tree (yes)… But while there is a lot of it, the scenes are not overly drawn-out nor especially graphic.

I find it strange that an error which went uncorrected in the translator’s introduction should be copied in various reviews around the internet without comment or note.  The lines read: “Choukri grew up under conditions of poverty excessive even for Morocco.  Eight of his brothers and sisters died of malnutrition and neglect.  Another brother was killed outright by Choukri’s father in an access of hunger and desperation.”  In the last line, the word should, of course, be “excess”, not “access”.

One of the lines which most struck me in the book concerned the death of one of the other siblings.  Choukri writes, “One day my little brother Achor died.  His death left me with no feeling of regret.  I had heard him crying and seen him crawling, but I had never thought of him as another person.”

It is all too easy not to think of certain people, or classes of people, as persons.  Choukri’s story certainly makes him a very real person, though if I had met him as youth I would probably have tried to avoid him, or not to connect with him.

Challenges: Africa Reading Challenge 2014; non-fiction reading challenge

#48. The Imitation of Christ (Thomas à Kempis)

Book: The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas à Kempis

Genre and Year of Publication: Spiritual exhortation; written in the 1420s, in Latin

Where I got it: Free Kindle download

Length: 220 pages approx.

Briefly, it’s a series of reflections on growing in the spiritual life and in union with God, by a monk and (seemingly) intended for monks, though it has influenced many others down the centuries.  Alleged to be the second most widely read Christian book of all time, and generally hailed as a Christian (Catholic) classic.

Comments: It took me many months to read this book, from the beginning of March to the very last days of October.  That is not because, as some find, its wisdom is so rich that it can be ingested only a little at a time, but because I found it quite heavy and wearisome.  I wanted to like this book.  I was open to receiving it positively.  I know that many holy people have found it to be a treasure.  But I just couldn’t find much in it to make me want to pick it up again whenever I left it down.  Yes, I was impressed by the 100% dedication which the author expects us to give to following the Gospel and loving Jesus Christ.  But I was really turned off by the constant harping on our own vileness, filth, worthlessness, etc.  Here is just one example picked at random:

What shall I think upon in this Communion in approaching my Lord, whom I am not able worthily to honour, and nevertheless whom I long devoutly to receive?  What shall be better and more healthful meditation for me, than utter humiliation of myself before Thee, and exaltation of Thine infinite goodness towards me? I praise Thee, O my God, and exalt Thee for evermore. I despise myself, and cast myself down before Thee into the deep of my vileness.  Book IV, Chapter II, par 2

It also promotes a very individualistic spirituality; there is little sense of being on a spiritual journey with others, and little about working with others or for others in our following of the Gospel.  I suppose it is of its era.  It has a very different tone to, for example, Pope Francis’ The Joy of the Gospel.

Challenges: Back to the Classics challenge, for the category “A Classic in translation”; ebook reading challenge; non-fiction challenge


#47. Achan: A Year of Teaching in Thailand (Elayne Clift)

Book: Achan: A Year of Teaching in Thailand, by Elayne Clift

Genre and Year of Publication: Travel memoir, 2010

Where I got it: Free Kindle download

Length: 192 pages

Briefly, it’s an account by an American woman of a year which she spent as a teacher in Thailand.

Comments: I had mixed feelings about this book.  The first part, where she describes her initial experiences of living in Thailand, her students, their families, her responses to a new culture, was interesting.  The second, in which she focuses more on visits from her friends and shopping trips that she took with them… much less so.   Overall, I felt it was a missed writing opportunity.

Challenges:  ebook reading challenge 2014; non-fiction reading challenge

#44. Sacred Road (Todd Maxwell Preston)

Book: Sacred Road: my journey through abuse, leaving the Mormons and embracing spirituality,
by Todd Maxwell Preston

Genre and Year of Publication: Spiritual memoir, 2013

Where I got it: Free Kindle download

Length: 152 pages

Briefly, it’s what it says in the subtitle: one man’s story of leaving the Mormons (“and embracing spirituality”)

Comments: The author’s childhood and adolescence were spent in New Zealand, Australia, and Utah.  His parents were both converts to the Mormon religion – I would have liked to learn a bit more about their stories.  The family was not a happy one, the father in particular being full of anger towards Todd, abusing him physically and emotionally (not sexually).  The Mormon environment was very closed and manipulative, and when as an adult Todd came to realise that it was time for him to leave, it was very difficult.  He had to leave behind his wife and children, as well as his relationship with most of his siblings. 

I would agree with other reviewers who say that he blames things on the Mormon religion which actually should be blamed only on his particular family circumstances.  With that caveat, it is an interesting book.

Challenges: Non-fiction reading challenge, ebook reading challenge.

#42. Something Bad Happen, Please! (Tom and Hedy Valledolmo)

Book: Something Bad Happen, Please! The fine art of turning life’s little glitches into a bounty of riches, by Tom and Hedy Valledolmo

Genre and Year of Publication: hard to categorize – Self-help? Travel? How to be a Jerk? Published 2014

Where I got it: Free Kindle download (read in August; reviewed in October)

Length: 142 pages

Briefly, it’s about how to claim compensation for anything that goes wrong on your travels.

Comments: When I downloaded the book, I thought that the subtitle meant “interior riches”, that the book is about having a positive attitude and finding happiness in situations of adversity.  How wrong I was!  It’s about getting every possible penny, or something else material, in compensation from every possible mishap.  The authors must be the customers from hell.  Hotels, restaurants, airlines… watch out, because if the slightest thing is not altogether to their liking and pleasure, they’ll screw you for it.

I really don’t know how anyone could go through life with this attitude and be happy.

Challenges: ebook reading challenge; non-fiction challenge

#40. Leadership is Hell: How to Manage Well – And Escape with your Soul (Rob Ashgar)

Book: Leadership is Hell: How to Manage Well – And Escape with your Soul, by Rob Ashgar

Genre and Year of Publication: Self-help, 2014

Where I got it: Free Kindle download (read in August; reviewed in October)

Length: 168 pages

Briefly, it’s a book that aims to explode the contemporary myth that being successful means being a leader, replacing it with the saner doctrine that “most talented people would be happier as freelancers, independent contractors or followers, liberated from the burdens of overseeing others” (a quote from the author, from a Forbes piece, here).

Comments: This book was very well worth MY while reading.  Here’s part of the blurb, which says it better than I can:

[The book] explores how to identify and overcome the blind spots that may be hurting your career; whether you have the right mindset for the kind of success that you’re seeking; how to develop just the right amount of “healthy ego” to make an impact; and how to make an impact on the world in a way that’s true to who you are (be forewarned, this might involve a completely different path than your current one).

This book will take you on a journey, showing you famous figures from history and the present—some who got it right, and some who didn’t. You’ll look at seven roads to hell within the world of leadership, and seven roads out of hell, to guide you safely to a meaningful legacy.

As a result of reading and reflecting on the wisdom of this book, I think I’ve let go – to a considerable degree, probably not completely – of my dream of being “a leader” within my professional career path, and I’ll concentrate instead on being successful according to the pattern that suits my particular personality and gifts.  It has been one of the elements contributing to my decision to seek a “sideways move” at work which will make me less likely to become a leader (of other people), and more likely to make me happy.  Hurrah for that.

It’s a book I need to read again, if only because it goes against the climate of the profession in which I operate, and where I do not get much support for my choices.  So the more I can interiorize of this, the better.  I’m so glad I chose to read it.

Challenges: Full House Challenge for the “Free Choice” category; ebook reading challenge; non-fiction challenge.

#38. Castles, Follies and Four-Leaf Clovers (Rosamund Burton)

Book: Castles, Follies and Four-Leaf Clovers: Adventures along Ireland’s St Declan’s Way, by Rosamund Burton

Genre and Year of Publication: Travel/pilgrimage, 2011

Where I got it: Gift from a friend, last year (read in July; reviewed in October)

Length: 288 pages

Briefly, it’s an account of a trek along an ancient Irish pilgrimage path which is being restored / revitalized

Comments: This was a re-read.  Having just completed my second Compostela book this year (see my last post) and deciding that I’ll never do it, I turned to this book again, in which Rosamund Burton treks the much shorter, much less known, and much less supported-by-amenities (such as hostels) St Declan’s Way in Ireland.  Running from Cashel in Co. Tipperary to Ardmore on the Co. Waterford Atlantic coast, it’s about 100 km altogether, over some low but not easy mountain terrain, as well as along river paths and pleasant country paths.  In this re-read, I saw that the author really pads out her account of the trek with a lot of stories about the people she met, their family history, the history of their houses, etc.  Many of these people were already known to her, as she lived for a time locally before emigrating to Australia.  These padding-stories are not uninteresting, by any means, but they were not exactly what I wanted to read about right now.  It’s a well-written book by an author who isn’t quite sure whether she’s “really” Irish or not, and who explores this question well in these pages, without letting the work degenerate into an angst-fest.  Burton belongs in the “spiritual but not religious” category, and finds a lot of spiritual meaning in her trek.  St Declan’s Way is an unusual trek, and this is a new slant on a popular theme (the pilgrimage journal).  Hopefully the Way will become a bit more popular in the future, but hopefully too it will never become part of the “pilgrimage industry” in the way that the camino to Compostela has.

Challenges: Non-fiction challenge; Full House Challenge for the Category “Re-read”; Reading Round Ireland (Waterford – where the author lived for a time)