It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War by Lynsey Addario

It's What I Do: A Photographer's Life of Love and WarIt’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War by Lynsey Addario
Published by Penguin Press

As a war photographer, Lynsey Addario has experienced some of the most amazing and terrible things imaginable. She has made it a point to travel with a purpose, to get the photographs most photojournalists won’t or can’t get, to show the world the truth through her photographs. This memoir is a peek into the years she’s spent all over the world, documenting some of history’s scariest and most important moments.

I’m not really into photography myself, but I love and appreciate how great photographers can tell a story with a single image. I also enjoy reading about the incredible and terrifying experiences of journalists (as I learned when I read Lisa Ling and Laura Ling’s memoir). It’s What I Do is a perfect combination of these two things, as it’s a memoir of Addario’s many experiences in the decade plus she’s spent photographing many parts of the world, peppered throughout with photographs from these experiences.

I’m not sure I could have enjoyed this book any more than I did. Not only is Addario an incredible photographer, but she’s a fantastic writer too. Her book is informative and rich with detail, yet she still maintains a friendly tone throughout that made me feel like I truly got to know her. Some of the things she’s experienced in her life were downright terrifying – many, many times she wondered if she’d survive – and she tells these stories with seriousness but also sprinkles in moments of lighthearted humor. Other things she’s experienced were simply beautiful – the humanity of the world, all the different people she’s met and various cultural experiences she’s had, it’s just incredible to read about. And see via her photographs.

I don’t really have much to say about this one, I guess, other than I really think everyone should read it. There’s nothing NOT to like in It’s What I Do so please check it out for yourself. What an inspiring, beautiful book – one that is entertaining, educational, and enlightening. Highly recommended.

Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin

Finding George Orwell in BurmaFinding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin
Published by Penguin

After years of studying about and traveling in Burma, American writer Emma Larkin began to realize that George Orwell had a major connection to this country. His mother was born there, and Orwell’s writing was very much inspired by the time he spent living and working in Burma. It has been said that three of his books – Burmese Days, Animal Farm, and Nineteen Eighty-Four – were based on his experiences there. Inspired by this knowledge, Emma Larkin decided to take a year to travel through Burma using George Orwell as her guide. She traveled to the places he lived and worked, and in Finding George Orwell in Burma, she illuminates for the reader how this country has been shaped by its history.

Last year, I read Everything is Broken: A Tale of Catastrophe in Burma for a book tour [my review] which got me really intrigued and wanting to know more about Burma’s history and the people there. Finally, a year later I picked up Larkin’s first book about Burma, Finding George Orwell in Burma, in an attempt to learn more about this country.

I’m definitely glad to have experienced this book. Like Everything is Broken, it was definitely a difficult read emotionally.  The country of Burma has been through a LOT, most of it not pleasant, and Larkin doesn’t shy away from giving the reader insight into these events. Much of the book deals with Larkin’s conversations with various Burmese citizens, which was eye-opening to say the least. To read about their experiences directly from them (well, from Larkin’s translations of what they told her if you want to get technical) was interesting and at times hurt my heart. But difficult reads can sometimes be the most important ones, so I’m glad I gave myself this experience.

If you typically don’t read much nonfiction, I am not going to lie, this book might be difficult to get through. It’s not “fun” nonfiction like some other narrative nonfiction reads are, but it certainly is important. If you have patience and an interest in learning more about the country of Burma, I would definitely recommend reading the book. If you enjoy travelogues, read it. If you enjoy history, read it. If you are the kind of person who knows bad things happen in the world and is okay with reading about them, read it. So yes I would recommend the book, however I am aware that not everybody is interested in this sort of thing.

While I have to admit that Everything is Broken had a greater impact on me than this book did, Finding George Orwell in Burma was certainly a worthwhile read for me and I’m glad I picked it up.

Hothouse Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire by Margot Berwin (with giveaway!)

Title: Hothouse Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire
Author:  Margot Berwin
Release date:  June 1, 2010
Publisher:  Vintage
Pages:  304
Genre:  Adult fiction
Source: TLC Book Tours

Thirty-two-year-old Lila Nova is healing from a heartbreaking divorce, just trying to make it in the New York advertising industry, and feeling lonely in her tiny apartment when she meets David Exley, a plant seller.  She is drawn to him immediately, and before she can stop herself, she’s taking plants home to “raise” and going on dates with the handsome Exley.  Soon after, she stumbles upon a Laundromat run by a strange and fascinating man named Armand, who claims he has nine rare plants in the back room.  Lila’s infatuation with Exley leads her to telling him a bit too much about Armand’s plants, and when those nine special plants disappear, it is up to Lila to travel to Mexico to get them back.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up Hothouse Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire.  Is it a women’s fiction novel?  Sort of.  Is it a romantic novel?  Sort of.  Is it a book about one woman’s quest to “find herself”?  Sort of.  It’s all those things and more.  I feel like Berwin tried to do a lot with the novel, and I have to admit that I’m not sure how well she succeeded.

Allow me to start with the good.  First of all, there are some serious adventures in this novel.  Lila travels all the way to the Yucatan Peninsula to search for plants, for goodness sakes!  The trouble she gets into, and the amazing successes she has, made for spectacular reading.  The descriptions of the scenery and the jungle were absolutely beautiful, I really felt as though Berwin painted a perfectly clear picture of everything Lila was experiencing.  As an added bonus, I learned a LOT about plants, which I knew nothing about previously.  I’ve never attempted to grow a plant (always lived in apartments, so that’s not so crazy), so it was very interesting to read about these different kinds of plants and what they all meant.  It actually made me want to go out and plant flowers in my non-existent backyard. 🙂

Another thing I loved about this novel was the character of Armand.  I didn’t expect to like him at first, because he is just so strange, and he says and does things that are so out of the realm of normal, but he ended up being so charming!  He was so protective of Lila, while at the same time encouraged her to go further and further in her quest to find these plants, encouraged her to do things that she never imagined she was capable of.  He really believed in her.  He saw something in her, and didn’t let go until she lived up to it.

Unfortunately the book did have some shortfalls, in my opinion.  My biggest issue with the novel was that I never really connected with Lila.  I liked her, I just didn’t feel anything for her.  As a character, she was sort of bland.  Also, I thought that we were going to get more into her issues, such as her divorce, but it was really just glossed over.  I appreciate that the majority of the book focused on her in the present, but I feel like Berwin gave me a teaser by saying she was recently divorced, and then not getting into it much.  I just needed something more to help me latch onto Lila and root for her.  As it stands, I really didn’t care about her enough to do that.

Overall, Hothouse Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire was a fun novel that I did enjoy.  While I had minor issues with it, I think Margot Berwin is an author I’ll be watching out for.  I loved her storytelling and would absolutely pick up another of her novels.  I would recommend this book if you’re looking for a fun, adventurous novel that will surprise you along the way.

The publisher has generously offered one copy of Hothouse Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire to one of my readers! To be eligible to win, simply leave me a comment on this post telling me why you’d want to win this book.  If you comment and DON’T want to be included in the giveaway, please say so. 🙂  This giveaway is for US/Canada only and you have until Monday, September 20th to enter, I will pick a winner the next day.

Hiroshima in the Morning by Rahna Reiko Rizzuto

Title:  Hiroshima in the Morning
Author:  Rahna Reiko Rizzuto
Release date:  September 1, 2010
Publisher:  The Feminist Press
Pages:  320
Genre:  Memoir
Source:  Winsome Media Communications

In the summer of 2001 Rahna Reiko Rizzuto traveled to Hiroshima to learn more about her family’s heritage by interviewing survivors of the atomic bomb.  Her husband stayed home in New York, to take care of their two young sons, and while initially he was enthusiastic and supportive of her trip, he soon begins to grow disenchanted and frustrated with the whole idea.  While Rizzuto runs into difficulty with her interviewing and the progression of her project, overall things are going okay – that is, until September 11.  When the towers fall, mere miles from her family’s home, past and present collide and Rizzuto suddenly begins to see everything – her heritage, her family, her marriage, her country – in a whole new way.

When I accepted Hiroshima in the Morning for review, for some reason I was thinking it was a novel.  And even upon reading it, it took a few pages for me to grasp the fact that I was reading a memoir.  Some might say I’m slow, but if you read the beautiful writing Rizzuto has to offer, you might be fooled too!  Seriously, the writing is just divine.  It’s descriptive and lush, without being showy or over the top.  I can recommend this book for the writing alone, it’s that good.

Fortunately, the book has a lot going for it in addition to the writing.  It is so important for me to connect with the author of a memoir, and I definitely felt a connection with Rizzuto.  She writes with such candor, such beautiful honesty, it’s impossible not to like her.  Although I am not a mother myself, I understood her struggle to be both a mother and a researcher at the same time.  She missed her children, at times ached for them, but knew deep down at Hiroshima was where she needed to be at that time in her life.  I’m sure every mother can relate to this – the tug-of-war between her own goals and the needs and desires of her children.

Hiroshima in the Morning deals with  serious subjects, but it never feels heavy-handed.  When September 11th happens, the book gets even more serious because the events of that day hit very close to home for Rizzuto (physically and emotionally), and she begins to see the tragedy of Hiroshima differently.  At this point, the book becomes more introspective, more about Rizzuto’s family and marriage and less about her research, but she really does tie everything together brilliantly.  She effortlessly draws parallels between Hiroshima and 9/11, muses about what exactly going to war solves, and intersperses snippets from her interviews with conversations from her husband and children.

I’m feeling a bit tongue-tied here because honestly, I loved this book so much and I think it begs to be read.  It is an absolute must-read in the memoir category, and because of the beautiful writing, it would be a great pick for someone newer to the idea of reading memoirs and other kinds of nonfiction.  Rahna Reiko Rizzuto has an important story to tell and she tells it flawlessly.  Highly recommended.

The Lunatic Express by Carl Hoffman

Title:  The Lunatic Express: Discovering the World Via Its Most Dangerous Buses, Boats, Trains, and Planes
Author:  Carl Hoffman
Release date:  March 16, 2010
Publisher:  Broadway
Pages:  304
Genre:  Nonfiction, World Issues, Travel, Memoir
Source:  Publisher

Carl Hoffman set out on a journey to travel on the world’s most life-threatening and dangerous modes of transportation in order to expose the reality of millions of people worldwide for whom travel is a daily struggle, so different from those of us who get to sit back, relax, and enjoy the experience of traveling.  Part journalistic expose and part memoir, Hoffman’s fascinating look at how the majority of the world lives will make anyone thankful for the comforts we enjoy on a daily basis.

I really got into this book.  It is exactly the type of nonfiction that I love – the kind that enables me to learn something while also having that personal touch that keeps me connected to what’s written in its pages.  I liked Carl Hoffman right away, although it was clear that this journey was his way of escaping some of his issues at home, he went into it with a hopeful heart and really good intentions.  He risked his life many times over in order to experience what millions of people have no choice but to experience every day of their lives.

Learning about how dangerous so many different types of transportation are was astounding.  There are some airlines that have obscene rates of fatal crashes, ferries that sink a couple of times a year, and trains that derail with startling frequency.  Hoffman experienced all of these.  Obviously, he lived to tell the tale, but it was so interesting to learn about the risks people are forced to take just to live a regular life – to get to work, school, or to visit family.

I don’t have much else to say about The Lunatic Express other than the fact that I highly recommend it.  If you like interesting nonfiction with a memoir feel, this is the book for you.

Books about searching: The Disappeared and The World in Half

I recently finished up two books with a similar theme, so I thought I’d just review them together.  They were both quite good and I’m very excited to share my thoughts with all of you.

The first book is The Disappeared by Kim Echlin.  I first heard about this one from Amy, and then a few weeks later Jill reviewed it too.  They both loved it, and based on their reviews it was one of those books that I just knew I HAD to read.  Seriously, this is a book not to be missed.  The Disappeared centers around Anne Greves, who is a lonely sixteen-year-old when she meets Cambodian-born Serey.  They have an instant connection, and fall desperately in love, even though the looming danger of Serey’s return to Cambodia is never far from Anne’s mind.  When the Pol Pot regime is officially over and Cambodia opens up again, Serey predictably goes back to find his family, leaving Anne, devastated, for the next eleven years.  After more than a decade of wandering around like a lost soul, Anne travels to Phnom Penh to search for him.  The book is written in second person, as if Anne is speaking to Serey the entire time, and it is beyond beautiful.  Not only is it a love letter between the two of them, but it is also a testament to the love Serey has for his country.  And I’m telling you guys, The Disappeared simply cannot be put into words – it must be experienced.  It is haunting and gorgeous and incredibly heartbreaking and just truly wonderful.  And it inspired me to do some research on the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, which I knew very little about.  So, honestly, don’t miss this book.  It is sad, yes, but ultimately a fantastic read that I personally could not put down.

The second book is The World in Half by Cristina Henriquez.  This novel is told from the perspective of college student Miraflores.  She’s trying to finish school and take care of her mother, who has early onset Alzheimer’s, when she comes across a secret about her father:  she had been told all her life that he abandoned her before she was born, but letters she found in her mother’s home tell a different story.  So she travels from Chicago, Illinois to Panama in search of the father she’s never met.  One of the main strengths of this novel, for me, was Mira’s character.  I can’t tell you how much I sympathized with and loved Miraflores – she was so easy to like, so easy to understand, and I couldn’t help rooting for her throughout the novel.  I was literally breathless when the inevitable time came where she actually got to discover the truth about her father – I was anticipating this moment so much, on her behalf!  I also loved the vivid descriptions of life in Panama – I finished the book feeling like I’d traveled there myself, the descriptions were that detailed.  The writing was quite beautiful, too.  I don’t really know what else to say – I simply loved The World in Half and wouldn’t have changed a thing about it!

So there you have it – two women, both searching for something in a foreign country.  Both books were excellent and I hope you get the chance to read each one.

A Year in Japan by Kate T. Williamson

Title:  A Year in Japan
Author:  Kate T. Williamson
Publisher:  Princeton Architectural Press
Published date:  January 2006
Pages:  188
Genre:  Graphic Memoir, Travelogue
Source:  Library


A Year in Japan is exactly what it sounds – Kate Williamson’s memoir of the year she spent in Japan.  Williamson uses both words and pictures (which she drew herself) to give the reader her impressions of this beautiful country.  I would never have heard of this book if it weren’t for Eva‘s recommendation, and I’m so happy she told me about it because I really enjoyed this wonderful little book.

I honestly loved everything about A Year in Japan.  The book was short, but there was a lot of detail in these pages.  It felt like Williamson took all of her memories from her time in Japan, picked out only what really spoke to her about her trip, and put the book together based on that.  I loved that I felt like I was getting a peek inside what mattered most to her about Japan.

I loved the format of the book.  The pictures were wonderfully drawn, with so much detail, and they were really very beautiful.  Also, the font in the book was like handwriting (it could have been Williamson’s handwriting, for all I know), so it felt more like a journal than an actual book.  It made me feel so close to her, like she was literally handing me her journal and saying, “here’s what I liked about my trip.  Enjoy”.  The whole book had the intimate feel of a diary (not in a creepy way, just in a sweet way).

And, lastly, A Year in Japan made me want to hop on a plane and fly to Japan myself.  I don’t have much experience with travelogues, but I can only assume that the author would appreciate the fact that her book made me want to experience what she experienced while living in Japan.  I am so intrigued by this country and its people, and I’d love to travel there someday myself!

Halfway to Each Other by Susan Pohlman

Halfway to Each Other: How a Year in Italy Brought Our Family Home
Susan Pohlman
October 1, 2009 (scheduled release date)
Guidepost Books
272 pages
Nonfiction, Memoir

The true story of a California couple on the brink of separation who unexpectedly find love again on the Italian Riviera. Tired, empty, and disillusioned with married life, Susan Pohlman was ready to call it quits. As soon as she and her husband, Tim, wrap up a business trip in Italy, she planned to break the news that she wanted to end their eighteen-year marriage. During their last day as they walked along the Italian Riviera, Tim fantasizes aloud that, perhaps, they could live there. Susan initially dismisses the notion as nonsense but is inexplicably overwhelmed with a desire to give the marriage another try. Defying all logic, the couple find a school for their children and sign a lease for an apartment. Maybe a life in such a charmed setting could help them find their way back to each other. Together with their fourteen-year-old daughter Katie and their eleven-year-old son Matt, they trade in their breakneck Los Angeles pace for adventure and a slower, more intimate lifestyle slipping out of the constraints of the traditional American Dream into a dream of their own. Instead of seeing each other for fleeting moments in the mornings and evenings, the family starts to spend their days together rediscovering the simple joys that bring texture and meaning to all our lives. Travel with them as they stumble upon new customs, explore medieval alleyways, browse street markets, befriend neighbors, learn to cook, and try a new language. Halfway to Each Other is the remarkable story of an ordinary American family that inspires and offers hope that all of us who find the courage to listen to our hearts and follow our dreams can experience a new beginning.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up Halfway to Each Other.  I like memoirs, so I was good there.  And I loved Italy when I visited 13 years ago (hard to believe it’s been that long – I was only twelve at the time), so I figured I was good there too.  I assumed I’d enjoy the book, but I wasn’t really expecting anything too amazing. Well… I was wrong on one hand.  I did enjoy the book; however, it was MUCH better than I was assuming/hoping it would be.

From the first page, I cared about this marriage, this family, and wanted them to find happiness and family togetherness in Italy.  I desperately wanted Susan and Tim to find a way to make their marriage work.  I enjoyed reading about this family, and throughout the book I kept thinking about how much they really did love each other, even when they were fighting or having issues I just kept thinking that I KNEW they’d make it through.

What I love about Halfway to Each Other is its ability to keep me laughing and on the verge of tears in alternating sections throughout the book.  So many of the Pohlmans’ adventures were hysterically funny – I mean, they were staying in this little village in Italy, with NO knowledge of the Italian language, with no family or friends to speak of.  And precious few of the people they met and the friends they made spoke some English.  So you can just imagine the awkward/hilarious situations they got themselves into!  Alternately, the book had so many heartfelt moments that nearly brought me to tears.  Like when Susan realized there were some things she absolutely HAD to rely on her husband for, instead of thinking she could do everything on her own.  Or when Katie fell in love for the first time (and subsequently had her heart broken) while in Italy.  Or when, after years of fighting and not getting along, Katie and Matt realized the importance of each other as siblings and started to get along and become friends.

Halfway to Each Other is one of the best memoirs I’ve read lately.  Both funny and touching all at once, it is the perfect feel-good read that really made me appreciate all the people in my family I take for granted every day – my husband, my parents, my siblings, and my niece.  I’m just grateful it didn’t take ME moving to Italy for a year to realize the importance of all the amazing people in MY life.

Highly recommended!