Friday, December 06, 2019

Nonfiction Review: An Ordinary Man

I just finished reading An Ordinary Man: An Autobiography by Paul Resesabagina, with Tom Zoellner, for Nonfiction November and was blown away by this powerful, moving story. I've wanted to read this memoir about the Rwandan genocide (it inspired the movie, Hotel Rwanda) for about eight years, ever since my son read it for World Lit in high school and told me how good it was. It was worth the wait!

Paul begins his story by describing his childhood in beautiful, mountainous Rwanda. He grew up in a close-knit rural community, as do most citizens of his country, where disputes were mostly handled by a group of elder residents in quiet way focused on forgiveness and healing. But, he also summarizes Rwanda's tumultuous and often violent history, from an ancient royal bloodline of mwami ruling the country to the years when it was a Belgian colony with Tutsis in positions of power to its rocky independence. While most people know that the genocide in 1994 involved two groups of people, the Hutus and the Tutsis, Paul explains that historical evidence suggests these are not actually different races, as commonly reported, but two groups of people formed from an artificial political distinction. Against the backdrop of the history lesson, Paul continues his life story: his education, his brief foray into ministry, and his eventual hiring by a luxury hotel in Kigali, Rwanda's capital city. Paul worked his way up in the Belgian corporation until he was manager, first of the Milles Collines and later of the Diplomates, where he worked when the violence began in 1994. Both were luxury hotels mostly used by foreigners visiting the city. In 1994, as horrific acts were carried out in the streets and neighbors attacked each other with machetes, Paul gathered a group of family and friends at the Milles Collines, along with its current guests, to keep them safe. As other people--both Hutu and Tutsi--ran to the hotel for sanctuary, Paul welcomed them all. He was determined to keep the hotel and all of the people in it (more than 1200 during the 90-day siege) safe from harm. He used his upbringing, charisma, and negotiating skills to call in favors and keep the hotel from being attacked, as it was threatened again and again. Throughout this remarkable story, Paul insists he is just an ordinary man who was doing his job, protecting the hotel and its people.

I was completely blown away by this stunning true story. The history was enlightening, since I knew almost nothing about Rwanda or the genocide (my first baby was born in 1994, so I was apparently distracted from world news). In addition, Paul's personal story and the extraordinary things he did to keep so many people safe was gripping and compelling, as he recounts what happened week by week. I was glad that my son had read the book so that I had someone to talk to about it last week! He also recommended the movie, Hotel Rwanda, to me, which he watched in class after reading the book. Besides simply relating the events that occurred in 1994, Paul also muses about what led to such a bloody climax and how regular people were whipped into such a frenzy that they dismembered their friends and neighbors. He has some thought-provoking insights, like this one:
"There is no greater gift to an insecure leader that quite matches a vague "enemy" who can be used to whip up fear and hatred among the population. It is a cheap way to consolidate one's hold on power."
This powerful and thoughtful book recounts an episode of history that is absolutely horrific, though the author also brings an element of hope to the story. After reading about what this "ordinary man" did to save so many people, the reader can't help but to share his hope for humanity and a better future.

204 pages, Penguin Books


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Listen to this sample from the audiobook (or order on Audible), with narrator Dominic Hoffman reading Paul Resesabagina's words, as he explains about the artificial line between Hutus and Tutsis and the impact of the genocide, from the Introduction of the book.


You can purchase An Ordinary Man from an independent bookstore, either locally or online, here:
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org

Or you can order An Ordinary Man from Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.
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Monday, December 02, 2019

It's Monday 12/2! What Are You Reading?

December? End of the year? Christmas season? Yikes, how did that happen?!

We just returned Saturday night from our dream vacation, renting a house for a week in St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands. Two-thirds of this 20-square mile Caribbean island is a National Park, so it was right up our alley! This was our celebration with our sons of our 30th wedding anniversary this fall. We had a great trip. The scenery was breath-taking, the snorkeling was the best we've ever experienced (sea turtles, rays, tropical fish, moray eels, barracuda, and even sharks just yards off the beach!), and it was wonderful to spend time together, just the four of us. Our sons are now in their early 20's, so we are very fortunate they still want to spend a week's vacation with us. All in all, it lived up to our high expectations, and we made some great memories.


Now, it's back to reality! I have not only the usual re-entry catch-up to do (big pile of mail to sort, over 600 e-mails, etc.), but all of a sudden it's Christmas season! I'll have to make this post quick (and put off blog visits for a couple of days) to get my Cyber Monday shopping done today.

I hope everyone in the U.S. had a wonderful Thanksgiving with friends and family. We took a guided kayak/snorkeling trip Thursday and then enjoyed the traditional Thanksgiving dinner - grilled steaks and watermelon!

As always, we all enjoyed our books, too! I'm in the odd position of being in the middle of reading three different books right now, plus an audio (I normally just read one in print at a time, with an audio on the side). I made the ultimate reader mistake of packing my current book in my checked baggage when we flew out - ugh! Airports and planes are prime reading time. Luckily, I had my Kindle with me, but I had to start a new book. Then, toward the end of the week, reality hit, and I realized I had book group this coming week, so I switched again!

Here's what we've all been reading the past two weeks:

I finished Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy by Anne Lamott for one of my book groups this week. I have enjoyed Lamott's memoirs and novels in the past so was eager to read this one. It's a memoir about mercy: what it means, how she finds it in her life, and its relationship with grace. It's all a bit ephemeral and musing (and a bit wandering), but I enjoy thoughtful books. It falls back strongly on Lamott's well-known experiences getting (and staying) sober, her religious beliefs (and those of others), and the need for "radical kindness" in our world. I missed the book group discussion, sandwiched in between a trip to my mom's to help her after surgery and our vacation. I received this book in a Yankee Book Swap at Booktopia a few years ago from a good friend and was pleased to open it up two weeks ago and realize it was signed by the author!


Next, I read another book for Nonfiction November that has been on my shelves for years, ever since my son read it in high school, about 9 years ago! I am so glad I finally got to An Ordinary Man: An Autobiography by Paul Rusesabagina, with Tom Zoellner. This is the man and the true story that inspired the movie Hotel Rwanda (which I now want to watch). It is a stunning account of how this ordinary hotel manager in Rwanda's largest city, Kigali, opened his hotel to refugees during the horrific, devastating genocide in 1994. With military, rebels, and even normal people murdering friends and neighbors in the streets, Paul steadfastly protected over 1200 people and used his considerable negotiating skills to call in favors to keep the hotel and its occupants safe for the duration of the 90-day horror, putting his own life at risk. My son and I discussed the book and its hero while I was reading it; it is a shocking, amazing story of how an ordinary man did something extraordinary. It was also an important history lesson for me. Highly recommended.

That was the book I mistakenly packed in my checked bag at the airport last Saturday, so I was without it at the airport and on the plane. I first read through Eyewitness Travel's Top 10 US and British Virgin Islands: Your Guide to the 10 Best of Everything, to find out more about where we were going and what we might see and do while there. Then, I looked through my Kindle to see what other absorbing nonfiction options I had available. I settled on The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe, all about his mother's treatment and decline with cancer and how she and Will discussed books together as a way of connecting. I absolutely loved Schwalbe's Books for Living, which I read for Booktopia several years ago, and also loved meeting him in person and getting to know him a bit. I thoroughly enjoyed starting this book on the plane and can't wait to get back to it, but once we were settled in our vacation house, I went back to the book I had been reading. I really don't like reading multiple books at once; I am a monogamous reader!


After finishing An Ordinary Man, I started Through a Window: My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe by Jane Goodall, since this was my planned "vacation book." This 1990 book (with an 2010 updated preface from Jane) describes her thirty years spent researching, observing, and living among the chimps in Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania. She alternates between sharing details of chimp research findings and studies, her own life in studying them, and narratives of the lives of the chimps themselves, each as individual and unique as humans are. It is a fascinating book that reads sort of like a chimp soap opera in parts! The reader gets to know the chimps as individuals and follow their lives through births, adolescence, battles for primacy among the males, and tragedies. I was inspired to read this book after reading Threatened, a YA novel about an African boy who lives among chimps in Gabon, and was really enjoying it and up to about page 110 (in the middle of the chapter on Sex!), when I had to set it aside because...


...I realized I had book group in a few days! I had completely forgotten about it while on vacation and towards the end of the trip, I was thinking about what to make for dessert for the book group on Wednesday, when I remembered, "Oh, right - there's a book to read, too!" So, I made an abrupt shift back to fiction and started The Woman I Was Before by Kerry Fisher (luckily, I had thought ahead at some point and downloaded it onto my Kindle!). I wasn't enjoying it at first because I found most of the characters unrelatable--phony and inauthentic--though it is growing on me. It's a bit lighter than our usual book group choices. The novel focuses on the differences between what people post on social media and what their real lives are like, which seems like a good topic to explore. But, at first, the women in the novel are just plain lying on Facebook. For instance, one will have be upset with her husband and then post a staged photo and #besthubbyever on Facebook. Who does that? So, as you can tell, I was annoyed with the characters at first (except for one who has a real reason for hiding her true self). I'm about 70% of the way through now, though, and I am liking it better. The women seem to be evolving and growing, so that's a plus. There are some surprising plot twists, too. I'll finish soon and get back to the chimps, who don't use Facebook!


On audio, I am still listening to Becoming by Michelle Obama, which is just as wonderful as everyone said it was! The early chapters cover her childhood in Chicago's South Side, her family, and her early friendships and education. Then, it moves into her career, meeting Barack, having children, and, of course, the election. I am about halfway, where they have just moved into the White House. She is honest, open, and warm, bringing the reader into her world and sharing not just the facts but also her thoughts looking back. It paints a picture of her as a person but also of the times she has lived through and the culture of the world around her. She is close to my age, so I can relate to much of that. As I heard from many people, the book is especially good on audio, read by the author in her lovely, familiar voice, and I am enjoying every moment of it (it's a long one).


My husband, Ken, finished the YA post-apocalyptic thriller, The Infinite Sea by Rick Yancey. This is book 2 of the trilogy that begins with The 5th Wave, which my husband, son, and I all loved (we still need to watch the movie adaptation). I read this second book in the series for my RIP XIV Challenge this fall, and I definitely want to read book 3. My son liked book 2 even more than the first book (he liked the emphasis on action and less romance - ha ha). If you enjoyed other YA post-apocalyptic thrillers like the Divergent trilogy, you should definitely give this one a try. My husband enjoyed it, too, and we are all looking forward to reading book 3, The Last Star.

Now, Ken has moved onto a birthday gift I gave him, The Witch Elm by Tana French. We are both huge fans of this Irish mystery/thriller author. Ken has read almost all of her Dublin Murder Squad series, and I recently read (and loved - review at the link) The Likeness (book 2) this fall. This is an unusual one for her, as it's a stand-alone suspense novel that was on lots of Best of 2018 lists. It's about a man, Toby, who is beaten and left for dead by some thieves one night. While recovering, he moves to his family's ancestral home to care for an aging uncle. Inside a tree in the yard, a human skull is discovered, and the police are called, as Toby realizes his past may not be exactly what he always thought it was. Ken is enjoying it so far.

Our son, 25, has been immersed in The Sanctuary Series by Robert J. Crane. While on vacation, he finished reading book 2, Avenger; book 3, Champion; and just this morning finished book 4, Crusader. He loves epic fantasies, and is enjoying this series very much. We gave him book 1, Defender, for Christmas, but he was turned off because it was only 269 pages (the longer, the better for him). He finally read it last month and loved it, and was off on a new series! The books are getting progressively longer, with book 4 weighing in at almost 600 pages, so he is thrilled with that. He loved it and is eager to read the rest of the series.
During vacation, he also read The Blood King by Gail Z. Martin, book 2 in the Chronicles of the Necromancer series. He told me he read book 1, The Summoner, years ago and really enjoyed it. He actually started book 2 back in 2015 but set it aside for some reason so was glad to get back to it now. It's a fantasy adventure series, of the type that he loves. He finished it on vacation...and he bought a book at the airport, too. He loves to read (obviously) and did not at all mind the three hours spent waiting in the airport and the four-hour flight home on Saturday. In fact, he offered to swap to a middle seat in the back so a mother could sit with her special needs child, and his brother reassured her, "Oh, it's no problem. He won't even notice he's in a middle seat - he'll just read all the way home." ha ha Yup, that's our son!


Blog posts from two weeks ago:
Fiction Review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, a wonderful epic family drama set in Korea and Japan

My Summary of Books Read in October - a record reading month for me!

What Are You Reading Monday is hosted by Kathryn at Book Date, so head over and check out her blog and join the Monday fun! You can also participate in a kid/teen/YA version hosted by Unleashing Readers.

You can follow me on Twitter at @SueBookByBook or on Facebook on my blog's page.   

What are you and your family reading this week?