genre memoir

Execution by Hunger

News of the death by starvation of millions of Ukrainians by Stalin was actively suppressed & denied for decades. It was only in the late 1980s that the world truly became aware of this atrocity & it wasn’t until 2006 when it was defined as a deliberate act of genocide. Soon after, a survivor broke his silence to provide the chilling details in this well-written & well-reviewed book which reads like a novel.

“Seven million people in the ‘breadbasket of Europe’ were deliberately starved to death at Stalin's command. This story has been suppressed for half a century. Now, a survivor speaks.

In 1929, in an effort to destroy the well-to-do peasant farmers, Joseph Stalin ordered the ‘collectivization’ of all Ukrainian farms. In the ensuing years, a brutal Soviet campaign of confiscations, terrorizing, and murder spread throughout Ukrainian villages. What food remained after the seizures was insufficient to support the population. In the resulting famine, as many as seven million Ukrainians starved to death.

This poignant eyewitness account of the Ukrainian famine by one of the survivors relates the young Miron Dolot's day-to-day confrontation with despair and death—his helplessness as friends and family were arrested and abused—and his gradual realization, as he matured, of the absolute control the Soviets had over his life and the lives of his people. But it is also the story of personal dignity in the face of horror and humiliation. And it is an indictment of a chapter in the Soviet past that is still not acknowledged by Russian leaders.”

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A Woman in Berlin

New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice

”For eight weeks in 1945, as Berlin fell to the Russian army, a young woman kept a daily record of life in her apartment building and among its residents. ‘With bald honesty and brutal lyricism’ (Elle), the anonymous author depicts her fellow Berliners in all their humanity, as well as their cravenness, corrupted first by hunger and then by the Russians. ‘Spare and unpredictable, minutely observed and utterly free of self-pity’ (The Plain Dealer, Cleveland), A Woman in Berlin tells of the complex relationship between civilians and an occupying army and the shameful indignities to which women in a conquered city are always subject—the mass rape suffered by all, regardless of age or infirmity.

A Woman in Berlin stands as ‘one of the essential books for understanding war and life.’ (A. S. Byatt, author of Possession)”

(A special thank you to book club member, Karen Van Drie for the suggestion.)

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Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia

"Childhood stories of family, country and belonging

What is it like to grow up Aboriginal in Australia? This anthology, compiled by award-winning author Anita Heiss, showcases many diverse voices, experiences and stories in order to answer that question. Accounts from well-known authors and high-profile identities sit alongside those from newly discovered writers of all ages. All of the contributors speak from the heart – sometimes calling for empathy, oftentimes challenging stereotypes, always demanding respect.

This groundbreaking collection will enlighten, inspire and educate about the lives of Aboriginal people in Australia today.

Contributors include: Tony Birch, Deborah Cheetham, Adam Goodes, Terri Janke, Patrick Johnson, Ambelin Kwaymullina, Jack Latimore, Celeste Liddle, Amy McQuire, Kerry Reed-Gilbert, Miranda Tapsell, Jared Thomas, Aileen Walsh, Alexis West, Tara June Winch, and many, many more.”

(A special thank you to book club member, Julie Jacobs for the suggestion.)

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My First Coup d'Etat

"My First Coup d'Etat charts the coming of age of John Dramani Mahama (the former President of Ghana) during the dismal post-independence 'lost decades' of Africa. He was seven years old when rumors of that first coup reached his boarding school in Accra. His father was suddenly missing. 'It is sometimes incorrectly referred to in texts as a bloodless coup, yet it was anything but,' Mahama writes. 'They tried, as best they could, with smiles and toffee, to shield me from their rising anxiety but I could feel it bouncing off the quick sideways glances they shot one another and taking flight like some dark, winged creature.' John's father, a Minister of State, was in prison for more than a year. My First Coup d'Etat offers a look at the country that has long been considered Africa's success story—from its founding as the first sub-Saharan nation to gain independence, to its current status as the only nation on the continent to have, thus far, met the majority of targets on hunger, poverty, and education set by the U.N. But these stories work on many levels—as fables, as history, as cultural and political analysis, and of course as the memoir of a young man who, unbeknownst to him or anyone else, was destined to become a leader in his own land. These are stories that rise above their specific settings and transport the reader—much like the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer and Nadine Gordimer—into a world all their own, one which straddles a time lost and explores the universal human emotions of love, fear, faith, despair, loss, longing, and hope despite all else."

(A special thank you to book club member, Judy Tanguay for the suggestion.)

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Gnarr

"In the epicenter of the world financial crisis, a comedian launched a joke campaign that didn’t seem so funny to the country’s leading politicians . . .

It all started when Jón Gnarr founded the Best Party in 2009 to satirize his country’s political system. The financial collapse in Iceland had, after all, precipitated the world-wide meltdown, and fomented widespread protest over the country’s leadership.

Entering the race for mayor of Reykjavík, Iceland’s capital, Gnarr promised to get the dinosaurs from Jurassic Park into downtown parks, free towels at public swimming pools, a 'drug-free Parliament by 2020' . . . and he swore he’d break all his campaign promises.

But then something strange started happening: his campaign began to succeed. And in the party’s electoral debut, the Best Party emerged as the biggest winner. Gnarr promptly proposed a coalition government, although he ruled out partners who had not seen all five seasons of The Wire.

And just like that, a man whose previous foreign-relations experience consisted of a radio show (in which he regularly crank-called the White House and police stations in the Bronx to see if they had found his lost wallet) was soon meeting international leaders and being taken seriously as the mayor of a European capital.

Here, Gnarr recounts how it all happened and, with admirable candor, describes his vision of a more enlightened politics for the future. The point, he writes, is not to be afraid to get involved—or to take on the system."

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Tears of the Desert

"Like the single white eyelash that graces her row of dark lashes–seen by her people as a mark of good fortune–Halima Bashir’s story stands out. Tears of the Desert is the first memoir ever written by a woman caught up in the war in Darfur. It is a survivor’s tale of a conflicted country, a resilient people, and the uncompromising spirit of a young woman who refused to be silenced.

Born into the Zaghawa tribe in the Sudanese desert, Halima was doted on by her father, a cattle herder, and kept in line by her formidable grandmother. A politically astute man, Halima’s father saw to it that his daughter received a good education away from their rural surroundings. Halima excelled in her studies and exams, surpassing even the privileged Arab girls who looked down their noses at the black Africans. With her love of learning and her father’s support, Halima went on to study medicine, and at twenty-four became her village’s first formal doctor.

Janjaweed Arab militias started savagely assaulting the Zaghawa, often with the backing of the Sudanese military. Then, the Janjaweed attacked Bashir’s village raping 42 schoolgirls and their teachers. Bashir, who treated the victims, could no longer remain quiet. But breaking her silence ignited a horrifying turn of events.

In this harrowing and heartbreaking account, Halima Bashir sheds light on the hundreds of thousands of innocent lives being eradicated by what is fast becoming one of the most terrifying genocides of the twenty-first century."

(A special thank you to book club member, Ester Elbert for the suggestion.)

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Slave

"Mende Nazer lost her childhood at age twelve, when she was sold into slavery. It all began one horrific night in 1993, when Arab raiders swept through her Nuba village, murdering the adults and rounding up thirty-one children, including Mende.

Mende was sold to a wealthy Arab family who lived in Sudan's capital city, Khartoum. So began her dark years of enslavement. Her Arab owners called her 'Yebit,' or 'black slave.' She called them 'master.' She was subjected to appalling physical, sexual, and mental abuse. She slept in a shed and ate the family leftovers like a dog. She had no rights, no freedom, and no life of her own.

Normally, Mende's story never would have come to light. But seven years after she was seized and sold into slavery, she was sent to work for another master—a diplomat working in the United Kingdom. In London, she managed to make contact with other Sudanese, who took pity on her. In September 2000, she made a dramatic break for freedom.

Slave is a story almost beyond belief. It depicts the strength and dignity of the Nuba tribe. It recounts the savage way in which the Nuba and their ancient culture are being destroyed by a secret modern-day trade in slaves. Most of all, it is a remarkable testimony to one young woman's unbreakable spirit and tremendous courage."

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The Translator

A NY Times Notable Book of the Year and an internationally bestselling book

"The Translator is a suspenseful, harrowing, and deeply moving memoir of how one person has made a difference in the world—an on-the-ground account of one of the biggest stories of our time. Using his high school knowledge of languages as his weapon—while others around him were taking up arms—Hari has helped inform the world about Darfur.

Hari, a Zaghawa tribesman, grew up in a village in the Darfur region. As a child, he saw colorful weddings and raced his camels across the desert. In 2003, this traditional life was shattered when helicopter gunships appeared over Darfur’s villages, followed by Sudanese government-backed militia groups attacking on horseback, raping and murdering citizens, and burning villages. Ancient hatreds and greed for natural resources had collided, and the conflagration spread.

Though Hari’s village was destroyed, his family decimated, he himself escaped. Roaming the battlefield deserts on camels, he and a group of his friends helped survivors find food, water, and the way to safety. When international aid groups and reporters arrived from the BBC and Chicago Tribune, Hari offered his services as a translator and guide. In doing so, he risked his life again and again for the government of Sudan had outlawed journalists, and death was the punishment for those who aided the 'foreign spies.' And then, inevitably, his luck ran out and he was captured.

The Translator tells the remarkable story of a man who came face-to-face with genocide—time and again risking his own life to fight injustice and save his people."

(A special thank you to book club member, Elke Richelsen for the suggestion.)

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Small Memories

Written by the Portuguese recipient of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Literature in his trademark sinuous writing style filled with uniquely long sentences & digressions, José Saramago recounts his early days as snippets of reminiscences that flow from one topic—and time period—to another.

"José Saramago was eighteen months old when he moved from the village of Azinhaga with his father and mother to live in Lisbon. But he would return to the village throughout his childhood and adolescence to stay with his maternal grandparents, illiterate peasants in the eyes of the outside world, but a fount of knowledge, affection, and authority to young José. 

Shifting back and forth between childhood and his teenage years, between Azinhaga and Lisbon, this is a mosaic of memories, a simply told, affecting look back into the author’s boyhood: the tragic death of his older brother at the age of four; his mother pawning the family’s blankets every spring and buying them back in time for winter; his beloved grandparents bringing the weaker piglets into their bed on cold nights; and Saramago’s early encounters with literature, from teaching himself to read by deciphering articles in the daily newspaper, to poring over an entertaining dialogue in a Portuguese-French conversation guide, not realizing that he was in fact reading a play by Molière."

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Daring to Drive

Note: After most of the book club had finished reading this book, we found out that it was actually ghostwritten by an American. This is the first book to our knowledge included in our global list which falls into this category & is normally not a book we'd read. However, since it was the book read for the month & then discussed, we've included it here. To read books by a Saudi author, we recommend any of the other 5 on our Saudi book list.

"A ferociously intimate memoir by a devout woman from a modest family in Saudi Arabia who became the unexpected leader of a courageous movement to support women’s right to drive.

Manal al-Sharif grew up in Mecca the second daughter of a taxi driver, born the year fundamentalism took hold. In her adolescence, she was a religious radical, melting her brother’s boy band cassettes in the oven because music was haram: forbidden by Islamic law. But what a difference an education can make. By her twenties she was a computer security engineer, one of few women working in a desert compound that resembled suburban America. That’s when the Saudi kingdom’s contradictions became too much to bear: she was labeled a slut for chatting with male colleagues, her teenage brother chaperoned her on a business trip, and while she kept a car in her garage, she was forbidden from driving down city streets behind the wheel.

Daring to Drive is the fiercely intimate memoir of an accidental activist, a powerfully vivid story of a young Muslim woman who stood up to a kingdom of men—and won. Writing on the cusp of history, Manal offers a rare glimpse into the lives of women in Saudi Arabia today. Her memoir is a remarkable celebration of resilience in the face of tyranny, the extraordinary power of education and female solidarity, and the difficulties, absurdities, and joys of making your voice heard."

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The Book of Emma Reyes

"'Startling and astringently poetic.' - The New York Times

Finalist for the PEN Translation Prize

This astonishing memoir was hailed as an instant classic when first published in Colombia in 2012, nearly a decade after the death of its author, who was encouraged in her writing by Gabriel García Márquez. Comprised of letters written over the course of thirty years, and translated by acclaimed writer Daniel Alarcón, it describes in vivid, painterly detail the remarkable courage and limitless imagination of a young girl growing up with nothing.
 
Emma Reyes was an illegitimate child, raised in a windowless room in Bogotá with no water or toilet and only ingenuity to keep her and her sister alive. Abandoned by their mother, she and her sister moved to a Catholic convent housing 150 orphan girls, where they washed pots, ironed and mended laundry, scrubbed floors, cleaned bathrooms, sewed garments and decorative cloths for the nuns—and lived in fear of the Devil. Illiterate and knowing nothing of the outside world, Emma escaped at age nineteen, eventually establishing a career as an artist and befriending the likes of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera as well as European artists and intellectuals. The portrait of her childhood that emerges from this clear-eyed account inspires awe at the stunning early life of a gifted writer whose talent remained hidden for far too long."

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Even Silence Has an End

"'Betancourt's riveting memoir...is an unforgettable epic of moral courage and human endurance.' -Los Angeles Times

In the midst of her campaign for the Colombian presidency in 2002, Ingrid Betancourt traveled into a military-controlled region, where she was abducted by the FARC, a brutal terrorist guerrilla organization in conflict with the government. She would spend the next six and a half years captive in the depths of the Colombian jungle. 

Even Silence Has an End is her deeply moving and personal account of that time. The facts of her story are astounding, but it is Betancourt's indomitable spirit that drives this very special narrative—an intensely intelligent, thoughtful, and compassionate reflection on what it really means to be human."

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A Tale of Love and Darkness

International bestseller & winner of the National Jewish Book Award

"'[An] ingenious work that circles around the rise of a state, the tragic destiny of a mother, a boy’s creation of a new self.' - The New Yorker

A family saga and a magical self-portrait of a writer who witnessed the birth of a nation and lived through its turbulent history. A Tale of Love and Darkness is the story of a boy who grows up in war-torn Jerusalem, in a small apartment crowded with books in twelve languages and relatives speaking nearly as many. The story of an adolescent whose life has been changed forever by his mother’s suicide. The story of a man who leaves the constraints of his family and community to join a kibbutz, change his name, marry, have children. The story of a writer who becomes an active participant in the political life of his nation."

A special thank you to book club member, Kayla Reynolds for the suggestion.

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Born in Jerusalem, Born Palestinian

"A poignant memoir of an eye witness of a major historical event in Jerusalem.

When Jacob Nammar was a young boy growing up in Harret al-Nammareh, his family, his friends, and the streets of his West Jerusalem neighborhood were the center of his life. It wasn’t long, however, before his existence was turned upside down when his family was forced out of their home during al-nakba, the catastrophe that resulted in the ethnic cleansing of nearly 750,000 natives and the destruction of over 500 Palestinian villages and towns.

In this heartwarming memoir, Jacob paints a vivid portrait of Palestinian life—from his childhood days in pre-1948 Jerusalem, the struggles of the Palestinian community under Israeli rule, to his ultimate decision to leave for America at age 23. It is a relevant and deeply personal tale of a man struggling to hold his world together as his beloved homeland is torn apart before his eyes and a chronicle of a love story with a city and a Palestinian family’s resilience and determination to survive even in their weakest moments.

Readers will laugh, cry, and be inspired by this charming coming of age story set amid the backdrop of one of the most tragic historical events that engulfed the region."

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I Saw Ramallah

"A fierce and moving work and an unparalleled rendering of the human aspects of the Palestinian predicament.

Barred from his homeland after 1967’s Six-Day War, the poet Mourid Barghouti spent thirty years in exile—shuttling among the world’s cities, yet secure in none of them; separated from his family for years at a time; never certain whether he was a visitor, a refugee, a citizen, or a guest. As he returns home for the first time since the Israeli occupation, Barghouti crosses a wooden bridge over the Jordan River into Ramallah and is unable to recognize the city of his youth. Sifting through memories of the old Palestine as they come up against what he now encounters in this mere 'idea of Palestine,' he discovers what it means to be deprived not only of a homeland but of 'the habitual place and status of a person.' A tour de force of memory and reflection, lamentation and resilience, I Saw Ramallah is a deeply humane book, essential to any balanced understanding of today’s Middle East."

A special thank you to book club member, Jo Jackson for the suggestion.

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I Was Born There, I Was Born Here

"In 1996, Barghouti went back to his Palestinian home for the first time since his exile following the Six-Day War in 1967, and wrote a poignant account of the exile's lot in the acclaimed memoir I Saw Ramallah. In 2003, he returned to Ramallah to introduce his Cairo-born son to his Palestinian family. 

I Was Born There, I was Born Here traces Barghouti's own life in recent years and in the past - early life in Palestine, expulsion from Cairo, exile to Budapest, marriage to one of Egypt's leading writers and critics (Radwa Ashour), the birth of his son, Tamim, and then the young man's own expulsion from Cairo.

Ranging freely back and forth in time, Barghouti weaves into his account poignant evocations of Palestinian history and daily life. His evocative, composed prose, beautifully rendered in Humphrey Davies' precise and sensitive translation, leads to the surprisingly candid condemnation of the Palestinian authority's leading figures and the astonishing verdict that 'The real disaster that the Palestinians are living through these days is that they've fallen under the control of a bunch of school kids with no teacher.' 

Beautifully rendered by the prize-winning translator Humphrey Davies, I Was Born There, I Was Born Here, is destined, like its predecessor, to become a classic."

A special thank you to book club member, Shivalaxmi Arumugham for the suggestion.

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When the Birds Stopped Singing

"The Israeli army invaded Ramallah in March 2002. A tank stood at the end of Raja Shehadeh's road; Israeli soldiers patrolled from the roof tops. Four soldiers took over his brother's apartment and then used him as a human shield as they went through the building, while his wife tried to keep her composure for the sake of their frightened childred, ages four and six.
This is an account of what it is like to be under seige: the terror, the frustrations, the humiliations, and the rage. How do you pass your time when you are imprisoned in your own home? What do you do when you cannot cross the neighborhood to help your sick mother?
Shehadeh's other memoir, Strangers in the House: Coming of Age in Occupied Palestine, was the first book by a Palestinian writer to chronicle a life of displacement on the West Bank from 1967 to the present. It received international acclaim and was a finalist for the 2002 Lionel Gelber Prize. When the Birds Stopped Singing is a book of the moment, a chronicle of life today as lived by ordinary Palestinians throughout the West Bank and Gaza in the grip of the most stringent Israeli security measures in years. And yet it is also an enduring document, at once literary and of great political import, that should serve as a cautionary tale for today's and future generations."

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The Aquariums of Pyongyang

"North Korea is today one of the last bastions of hard-line Communism. Its leaders have kept a tight grasp on their one-party regime, quashing any nascent opposition movements and sending all suspected dissidents to its brutal concentration camps for 're-education.' 

Kang Chol-hwan is the first survivor of one of these concentration camps to escape and tell his story to the world, documenting the extreme conditions in these gulags and providing a personal insight into life in North Korea.

Part horror story, part historical document, part memoir, part political tract, this record of one man's suffering gives eyewitness proof to an ongoing sorrowful chapter of modern history."

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Dear Leader

"AN INTERNATIONAL BESTSELLER - THE STORY THEY COULDN'T HACK.

A high-ranking counterintelligence agent describes his life as a former poet laureate to Kim Jong-il and his breathtaking escape to freedom.

As North Korea’s State Poet Laureate, Jang Jin-sung led a charmed life. With food provisions (even as the country suffered through its great famine), a travel pass, access to strictly censored information, and audiences with Kim Jong-il himself, his life in Pyongyang seemed safe and secure. But this privileged existence was about to be shattered. When a strictly forbidden magazine he lent to a friend goes missing, Jang Jin-sung must flee for his life.

Never before has a member of the elite described the inner workings of this totalitarian state and its propaganda machine. An astonishing exposé told through the heart-stopping story of Jang Jin-sung’s escape to South Korea, Dear Leader is an 'impossibly dramatic story…one of the best depictions yet of North Korea’s nightmare' (Publishers Weekly)."

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The Girl with Seven Names

"New York Times Bestseller.

An extraordinary insight into life under one of the world’s most ruthless and secretive dictatorships – and the story of one woman’s terrifying struggle to avoid capture/repatriation and guide her family to freedom.

As a child growing up in North Korea, Hyeonseo Lee was one of millions trapped by a secretive and brutal communist regime. Her home on the border with China gave her some exposure to the world beyond the confines of the Hermit Kingdom and, as the famine of the 1990s struck, she began to wonder, question and to realize that she had been brainwashed her entire life. Given the repression, poverty and starvation she witnessed surely her country could not be, as she had been told 'the best on the planet'?

Aged seventeen, she decided to escape North Korea. She could not have imagined that it would be twelve years before she was reunited with her family."

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