Wednesday, October 29, 2008

India : In Word and Image by Eric Meola

Photographs by Eric Meola

Introduction by Bharati Mukherjee

Published by Welcome Books

Hardcover, $60.00 ($69.00 CAN)

One of the perks of writing my blog, besides getting to know other bloggers of course, is receiving the occasional book to review, so when Welcome Books asked me if I would like to take a look at
Eric Meola's new collection of photographs in his new book titled,"India : In Word and Image", I jumped at the chance.

After saying "yes" to Welcome Books I went about my work not thinking too much about it. So, the other day, when I received a box, a rather heavy box I should add, in the mail I quickly opened it (I was curious to find out why the package was so heavy, after all, this was just a book), and was delighted to find, not just any book, but a beautiful ,glossy coffee-table book, about the size of a school atlas, filled to the brim, (yes, all 272 pages of it) with sumptuous color photographs from all over India!!!
From India: In Word and Image (Welcome Books). Photographs © 2008 Eric Meola.

As I leafed through the glorious pictures I found myself completely dazzled by Meola's beautifully-composed photographs. No matter the subject: a caravan of camel riders at dusk; sacred temple towers decorated with a phantasmagoria of multi-armed, blue-skinned Hindu deities ; man bathing in the Ganges or the absolutely stunning art detail of the 15th century Thikse monastery in the Indus Valley, all of Meola's photos are an invitation to share in Meola's skill with the camera and his love of India. And that's not all, Meola's images are interwoven with a personal essay revealing thoughts and insights on his trip to India as well as a feast of literary snippets from well known writers like Salman Rushdie, RK Narayan, Jhumpa Lahiri and so on. It is this ingenious approach - of examining India through fabulous photos and its literary heritage - that gives this book its edge. From India: In Word and Image (Welcome Books). Photographs © 2008 Eric Meola.

Celebrations, people and sacred architecture dominate the book and I am not surprised, after all, religion forms an intricate part of the social fabric of Indian life and with a pantheon that is tens of thousands of gods strong, religious celebrations are in abundance!
This is Meola's second book. The first is a collection of photos from what he calls "The Last Places on Earth" where he covered Burma, New Guinea, Africa, India, the Galápagos Islands, Mongolia, India, and Tibet. He returned to India to devote a complete book to the country, because as he says in his personal essay from the book,
“What I see more than anything else is a nation embracing life. Every day there is a celebration, if not dozens, throughout the country, for that is what India is about — a continuous celebration of life and its mysteries.

“As a photographer, I am drawn to India because of the psychedelic colors that seem to permeate every facet of life. I go there for all the contradictions of a place that is like no other I have ever been to; but I am drawn to India because the people are blessed with childhood’s sense of wonder, which they have never lost.”
From India: In Word and Image (Welcome Books). Photographs © 2008 Eric Meola.

"India: In Word and Image" is a beautiful way to get to know India. Leave it on your coffee table, not only will it look fabulous, but just watch how your guests will be drawn to it (I know I tried it!). Beyond it's silky cover, there's a colorful look at a country so vast that it would take several lifetimes to see it. Do yourself a favor and treat yourself to a copy this Christmas, its vibrant and warm pictures will give you several hours of joy over the cold winter.

About the Author

Eric Meola published his first book, Last Places on Earth, with Graphis in 2004. In 2006, Welcome Books distributed a book of his photographs of Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run: The Unseen Photos. Eric''s photographs are in private and public collections including the International Center of Photography, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., and the George Eastman House, and his graphic color images have appeared editorially in numerous magazines, including Life, Travel & Leisure, Esquire, and Time.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

Recently, Steven Galloway's wonderful, wonderful book was longlisted for the prestigious Giller Prize and it seemed a great time to revisit this extraordinary book. Another reason for revisiting this post is because the Cellist, Vedran Smailovich,whose courage was one of the main inspirations for the book, has been talking about suing Galloway for using his (Smailovic's) story. While I understand his being upset about the inclusion of his picture (without permission) on the book cover, I do not think (Smailovic) has a right to sue Galloway for writing about a very public event. Sure, it would have been nice if Galloway could have spoken to him before he used the cellist as a subject and maybe even gave him a monetary token of appreciation, but that was Galloway's prerogative and he chose not to do so. Any thoughts?

Category: Fiction
Hardcover, 272 pages

Publisher: Knopf Canada
Pub Date:
April 8, 2008
Price: $29.95

Before I tell you anything about Steven Galloway's book "The Cellist of Sarajevo" let me tell you a true story:

Vedran Smailovic was the principal cellist of the prestigious Sarajevo opera theater which was destroyed by sniper when Sarajevo was under seige in the 1990's.

At 4:00 pm on May 27th, 1992, a long line of starving people waiting in front of the only bakery in Sarajevo that still had enough flour to make bread were shelled. Twenty-two people died as Vedran Smailovic stood at his window a hundred yards away and watched.

The next day hungry people lined up again to beg for bread—certain they would die if they didn't come to the bakery and convinced they could die if they did. Then it happened. Vedran Smailovic arrived. He was dressed in the black suit and white tie in which he had played every night until the opera theater was destroyed. He was carrying his cello and a chair.

Smailovic sat down in the square and, surrounded by debris and the remainders of death and the despair of the living, he began to play the mournful Albinoni "Adagio," the one music manuscript that had been found whole in the city after the carpet bombing of Dresden.

What's more, shelling or no, he came back to the square every day after that for 21 consecutive days (one day for each of the people that had died) to do the same thing, a living reminder that there is a strength in the human spirit that simply cannot be destroyed. Today, where he sat, there is a monument of a man in a chair playing a cello. But the monument is not to his music, as good as it is. It is to his refusal to surrender the hope that beauty could be reborn in the midst of a living hell. Even more important, perhaps, is the fact that that small sound of hope rings on still around the world.

(Joan Chittister)

(from the famous two-page photo spread and article that John Burns did for the New York Times)

This act caught the imagination of people around the world. Composer David Wilde wrote a piece for cello called "The Cellist of Sarajevo" in his honor which was recorded by Yo Yo Ma. His daring act also inspired the song Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24 by Savatage. Folk singer John McCutcheon also penned a song in his honor, "In the Streets of Sarajevo." Now, Canadian author Steven Galloway's novel "The Cellist of Sarajevo" joins that inspired list.

"The Cellist of Sarajevo" tells the story of three very ordinary people and how they go about their lives trying to survive the siege of Sarajevo. Arrow is the first protagonist we are introduced to, she is a young woman, a competitive shooter before the war and has been forced to become a sniper; Kenan is a middle-aged man and father who embarks every four days on a dangerous mission to collect water for his family and a hostile old neighbor and Dragan a 64-year old man who must make the dangerous journey everyday across sniper's alley to the bakery where he works in order to eat. The three are not known to each other but they are connected by the cellist of Sarajevo whom they go to listen to as he plays.

Although, as per history, the people under siege in Sarajevo were the Bosnian Muslims and the men holding them there were the Bosnian Serbs, Galloway doesn't refer to them by their ethnic labels, preferring instead to call the inhabitants Sarajevans and their enemy "the men on the hills". By keeping his story free of ethnic labels he is able to convey to the reader the horror not just of the Sarajevo but of any war.

The prose he uses is spare but so evocative you will be moved in ways you never imagined. Much of the narrative moves in slow motion giving the reader time to feel the same fear and panic the protagonists feel as they try avoiding the snipers on the hill. You are right there with them trying to survive just like they are doing. The story of these three people (and the cellist) and what they endure just to survive will touch your heart and break it at the same time.

While the novel is centered on the conflict in Sarajevo it is also a book about art.
We have a tendency,” Galloway says, “in North America in particular to view art as a luxury item, things like music or books as almost a frivolity. But the way Europeans look at it, and kind of the way I look at it, is that one of the points of art and music is to remind us of our innate humanity.” And that is precisely why the cellist played in the rubble for 22 days...he was offering his music as a healing tool, a tool to connect with one's humanity despite the inhumane actions going on all around them.

As anyone that reads my blog knows, I read a lot of books but I have to say this has been one of the better books I have read in quite a while. Please, do yourself a favor and buy a copy, heck, buy a copy for a friend or family member too, you won't have any regrets.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The Road of Lost Innocence by Somaly Mam

Category: Biography & Autobiography - Personal Memoirs; Current Affairs; Social Science - Third World Development
  • Format: Hardcover, 208 pages
  • On Sale: September 9, 2008
  • Publisher : Random House
(translated from the French by Lisa Appignanesi)

This summer when I was reading up in preparation for our trip to Cambodia I came across an article that described Phnom Penh as the "new Bangkok". At first I thought this meant that Cambodia had dethroned Bangkok to become the leading and cheapest place to buy designer knock-offs, but that wasn't what they meant. Turns out that Cambodia is now the premier destination for sex tourism in the South East of Asia, something that in the '80's, Bangkok (especially the "Patpong Area") was particularly well known. However, what it is even more disturbing is that Cambodia seems to have become some sort of a magnet for child molesters, at last count about 25 % of Cambodia's prostitutes were under-age.

Because there is such a lot of money to be made from this particular type of tourism and because a majority of Cambodians are so poor, Cambodian cities are flooded with girls who have either been sold into sex slavery by their parents or who have been kidnapped by sex traffickers (over a million young women and children are sold into slavery every year and a Canadian nonprofit estimates 1 in 40 girls born in Cambodia will be sold into sex slavery.). At $12 billion annually, the global slave trade has become the third most profitable criminal industry in the world, behind only narcotics and weapons!

One-third of Cambodia's prostitutes are under-age. Virgins are in particular demand by men with AIDS because of a legend that they can be cured by having sex with a virgin. Also, Chinese, Thai and Cambodian men believe that having sex with a virgin increases one's virility. To satisfy their demands, younger and younger girls are being kidnapped...some even as young as five years. Men also seek younger girls because they are deemed less likely to be infected with H.I.V virus, than the older girls.

Somaly Mam was one of those girls. When she was twelve her “grandfather” sold her into slavery. She was forced to work in a brothel where she faced hunger, punishment and sexual abuse on a daily basis. This continued for a few years, then one night, she watched a client murder her close friend and realized that if she didn't get out, her fate would be the same. Around that time a Swiss expat working for one of Cambodia's numerous NGO's came into her life and he gave her enough money to leave the brothel. Somaly held several different jobs for the next few years but her heart was always with the poor sex workers in Cambodia and she decided she had to go back and do something to help them.

So with a little backing from her French husband's contacts she started a non-governmental organization called “Acting for Women in Distressing Circumstances.” which to date has saved over 4000 girls from sexual slavery and rehabilitated them into society. Somaly has been rewarded for her commitment to this cause with a slew of humanitarian awards.

Last month Random House published Somaly's memoir titled "The Road of Lost Innocence". The novel, written in French (Somaly's third language) and then translated into English could be the reason the prose is so neatly constructed and so matter-of-fact. The details are horrific (Buckets of live maggots dumped on her body and in her mouth, days of brutal beatings, violent gang rapes, burning with car batteries, tied in a dark room full of snakes. . .) but because they are presented in such an impersonal way, you almost get the sense that Somaly has distanced herself from that part of her life and perhaps she has. The only time you get carried up with her emotion is when she is talking about the girls she has saved and in the last chapter when she discusses how writing this book has made her relive her awful past. Another reason for the emotionally detached prose could be the Cambodian's reluctance to discuss personal matters...Cambodians are very private people and it could be that writing down the really sordid details of her life made Somaly uncomfortable. It seems plain to me that the main reason she wrote this memoir was to educate people on the plight of prostitution, especially child prostitution in Cambodia and to that effect she's done a fine job.

The Khmers or Cambodians have always been known to be very happy and peaceful people, so how did they learn to be so cruel? Somaly is of the opinion that three decades of bombing, genocide and starvation have led to her country being morally bankrupt. During the cruel reign of the Khmer Rouge people learned not to trust anyone and to only depend on themselves, as a result, they have become completely self-centered and don't feel much empathy for their neighbors or friends, much less someone who is from the lowest strata of society, like a prostitute.

If in the 19th-century our ancestors decided that slavery was a moral blot on humanity and rose up against it, why can't we do the same today??? Why do we acquiesce in 21st-century slavery, when 15-year-old girls are imprisoned in brothels and sentenced to death by AIDS? Come, let us together raise our voices against this terrible issue and join causes that are fighting it.

A portion of the proceeds of this book will be donated to the Somaly Mam Foundation.