Thursday, October 16, 2014

[Book Review] Dreadnought by Robert K. Massie


Marilyn reviews DREADNOUGHT: BRITAIN, GERMANY, AND THE COMING OF THE GREAT WAR by Robert K. Massie (Random House, 1991)

Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War by Robert K. Massie was a good read on the political and military history of Great Britain and Germany before World War I, also known as the Great War. Robert Massie wrote an in-depth history of the rise of Germany and Great Britain’s reaction to the German nation’s alliances, acquisition of colonies, and development into a naval sea power. 

Robert K. Massie starts his work with Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee and the rise of Germany into a world power. The book also recounts the personal lives of Queen Victoria, her children, and grandchildren. Her son, Edward VII, and grandson, George V, would become kings of the United Kingdom. Another one of her grandsons would become Kaiser William II of Germany, while her daughters would marry the rulers of Europe.

Of interest to me were the personalities of the ambassadors, prime ministers, naval personnel, and king. I was intrigued by the choice of alliances between countries, the changing of their navies from sailing to coal-driven turbine Dreadnought ships, and Great Britain’s move from a policy of isolationism to forming alliances with countries in Europe. The depth of the secrecy of Germany’s alliances, which it continued to make and change in the later part of the 19th century, was a fact of which I was not aware. In the twentieth century came the emergence of the Dual Alliance and Triple Alliance and, as a result, the stage for World War I is set.

Marilyn, Central Library

Don't forget the World War I Monday Lecture Series taking place in the Memphis Room of the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library from 6:00 - 7:00 p.m. 

The last two dates are October 20 and November 10, 2014. Call (901) 415-2742 for more information. 

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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

[Memphis Reads2014] Fresh Reads Top Ten Winner Nick Vongprachanh

Fresh Reads Essay Contest Winner Nick Vongprachanh

Where I Belong

While the primal desire to reach a state of stability is apparent in all living organisms, the psychological strain produced from changing environments is a characteristic almost exclusively reserved for humans. In the novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, by Dinaw Mengestu, the protagonist Sepha Stephanos appears to be leading an average lifestyle; he has a home, friends, and a store which provides his income. Although most would be content with his way of life, Sepha still feels as if he is “a bird stuck between two branches” due to his inability to fully accept American culture and realize that he will never return home. In this novel, the author utilizes this geographical barrier and Sepha’s inability to let go of the past to display how difficult the path of self-discovery was for Stephanos and how he was able to carry on with his life afterwards.

Although Sepha left his home country of Ethiopia at the age of sixteen, it wasn’t until he moved out of his uncle’s apartment that he truly felt like he was leaving home. Upon Sepha’s return to his uncle’s apartment almost fifteen years after moving out, he stated that “living here is as close to living back home as one can get, which is precisely why I moved out.” While still living with his uncle, Sepha still had plans of returning home and never fully accepted that he would never return. After moving out, however, Stephanos, with the help of his friend Kenneth, embraced his newfound hope in America and opened up his own shop. By doing so, Sepha further cemented his ties to America and came one step closer to accepting his newfound life.
Although changing locations displayed Sepha’s willingness to become independent of not only his uncle, but also the comfort of his own people, it was still difficult to fully grasp how Sepha’s mentality towards American culture had changed. Luckily, Stephanos had two friends who illustrate his split sense of belonging perfectly. His friend Joseph, commonly referred to as “Congo Joe,” never missed an opportunity to bolster about his African heritage. Joseph’s desire to retain his African roots was so severe that he even refuses to seek dental work and instead claims “you can never forget where you came from if you have teeth as ugly as these.” On the other hand, Sepha’s friend Kenneth, otherwise known as “Ken the Kenyan,” fully embraced American culture and all it has to offer. Since coming to America, Kenneth has crawled his way up the social ladder to become an engineer, who continues to “fight the good fight.” Together, these two characters display the split sense of identity Stephanos retains throughout the novel; they also continue to reiterate the fact that “home” is where you make it and the importance of retaining some sense of personal identity.
While Sepha’s best friends played a vital role in fully illustrating the two sides of his personality, it wasn’t until the arrival of Judith and Naomi that Sepha fully realized that he was searching for all this time in America. While Judith may play an important role in revealing Sepha’s own insecurities regarding what he has accomplished in life so far, it is Naomi who plays the truly vital role in Sepha’s own self-discovery. While it may seem rather odd that a middle-aged man and a little girl could become great friends in such short period of time, it is primarily due to the fact that they rely on one another for emotional support. Although Naomi’s father is still alive, she has never fully accepted him as her parent. By having Sepha read to her, she is filling the void left in her heart. This was also the first time that Sepha finally felt at home since coming to America and as he put elegantly “tomorrow did not come fast enough.”  It was also during these reading sessions that Sepha was able to reminisce about the time he spent with his father and help him cope with his loss. While reading to Naomi, Sepha states that “this is exactly what my father would have done” and that “he would have made the story an event, as grand as real life.” This statement reiterates Sepha’s desire to be like his father and to live a life that would make his family proud. It might have been easier for Sepha to forget about his past if his brother back in Ethiopia, Dawit, was not a constant reminder of his father and his own failures. Unlike Sepha, Dawit was a college graduate and as Sepha put frankly “he already looked more like him then I ever would.”
Ultimately, the coming and going of Judith and Naomi along with the eviction of Sepha from his convenience store led to Sepha’s realization that while it is important to remember his father, it is pointless to try to emulate him. He is a grown man, and now it is time for him to lead his own life and become his own person. America is his home now, and it is imperative that he find happiness in his own life instead of constantly dwelling about his own shortcomings and worrying about what his family would think if they saw what his life had become.  As a whole, this novel illustrates the fact that home is where you make it and the importance of understanding one’s self, because living for someone else’s sake is no way to live.
While reading this novel, I found myself constantly thinking of my own father. Like Sepha, my dad was also a refugee, escaping from Laos with his parents and two sisters at the young age of eleven. Although I’ll never fully be able to understand the difficulties my dad faced when coming to America, I still experience the friction between the two cultures in my everyday life. Unlike my father, my mother is an American, born and raised. While this may seem like no big deal, I find myself constantly trying to appease both sides. I also find myself not fully wanting to fully embrace or reject the other culture. While my tastes in food, appearance, and knowledge of Lao customs might make me a little too foreign to be seen as a typical American, my inability to speak the language and dislike for some of the weirder Lao foods permanently subjugates me to be branded as no different from any other Caucasian. For me, being stuck between two cultures was never a big deal. While at times it may be somewhat irritating trying to appease both sides, I never really felt like being wedged between both cultures was that overbearing. Therefore, to claim I have resolved my dilemma would not be necessarily true; instead, I would consider myself at home between the rock and a hard place. While it may not be the ideal situation, I find comfort in knowing that both are there to stay.
--Nick Vongprachanh

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Monday, October 13, 2014

[Memphis Reads 2014] Fresh Reads Top Ten Winner Luke Wade

Fresh Reads Essay Contest Winner Luke Wade
Dinaw Mengestu’s The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears is a story of a man with an identity crisis, though not so much in who he is as where he feels he should be.  Although the book’s protagonist, Sepha Stephanos, has left his home country of Ethiopia seventeen years prior, he is still conflicted as to whether the U.S. is really where he belongs.  Several times, he considers just packing up and going home, yet in the end he stays. The text serves to show how he comes to understand that he cannot go back, as well as the trials he must face to reach this understanding.
        Stephanos, at least for a good portion of the story, is a man who has left his home, but has not altogether “left.”  He is still reminded of his old life everywhere he goes, and even claims, “For at least the first two years that I was here, I was so busy passing my mother, brother, father, and friends…that at times it hardly felt as if I had really left….My hallucinations of home became standard” (175-176).  It is clear that though he has physically moved on, he is still stuck in the past mentally.  Yet he still tries to create his own identity as a store clerk chasing the American dream.  This exemplifies his struggle for a unified self in one country or the other, in that he strives for success in one while struggling to let go of the other.  Without making a choice, he remains stuck in a geographic limbo.  That is, until he meets Naomi and Judith, or rather, when he must say his last goodbye to them.
        When Sepha becomes closer to Judith, he often considers what a relationship with her would be like, but he always holds back.  Why? Even after seventeen years in the country, he still can’t see himself with an American woman, because he still hangs onto the possibility of returning to Ethiopia.  Time and time again, he skirts the edge of intimacy with her until it is too late to make his move.  It is at this point, as he walks away from her for the last time, that he truly accepts that he can never go back, and the fact that he should have been looking ahead in the first place.  “…a man stuck between two worlds lives and dies alone.  I have dangled and been suspended long enough…Right now, I’m convinced that my store looks more perfect than ever before” (228).  Here, he chooses his quaint little store, the life he leads in America, and the affirmation that he will not let another “Judith” slip through his fingers.
        While Sepha’s story may seem foreign (both figuratively and literally) to some, it is actually quite relatable to me.  Though I’ve never been out of the country (and have hardly left Tennessee, for that matter), I can understand being stuck between two conflicting “worlds,” and letting life pass me by in the process.  Not long ago, I was battling severe depression.  Every day felt like a tug of war between waking up and giving up.  I knew I should have been productive and involved, but I rarely felt the drive to be so.  I considered my thoughts bipolar, but never my actions; one minute I was ready to conquer the world, the next not even ready to get out of bed.  Regardless of what I was thinking, I hardly left my room save for going to school, because I was trapped by “what-ifs” and whether it was just easier not to try.  I wanted to be successful, though, so I finally made my choice and stuck to it.  I knew that I was depressed in part from an incredibly poor self-image.  I was overweight, had poor hygiene, and prior to making my decision, made next to no effort correct either.  However, I needed a starting point, and that proved to be it.  Over the course of about three months, I lost nearly sixty pounds, and, to the benefit of everyone around me I’m sure, began showering consistently.  My fourteen-hour long gaming marathons ended, and I eventually gained some confidence.  I was doing better than ever in school, and overall felt much better about who I was and who I could become.
        A year has now passed since I decided to make a change.  While I still have some kinks I need to work out, I feel I am in control of my life and have the support I need to keep moving ahead.  Now I’m just your average, somewhat awkward teenager going to college to take yet another big step forward in life.  To me, this reaffirms the idea that your development as a human being is never done.  The journey never ends, but you move a lot faster when you’re not trying to follow two separate paths.
---Luke Wade

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Wednesday, October 08, 2014

[Memphis Reads 2014] Fresh Reads Top Ten Winner Jeanne StaAna

Fresh Reads Essay Contest Winner Jeanne StaAna
Sepha Stephanos, like many immigrants, came to America for refuge. Many of them seek opportunity, and a new life full of possibilities. However, Sepha and his friends came to realize the reality of homesickness was all too real. To migrate from a land that is not your own, and to make peace with the faces that are not like yours can be a difficult battle to win. Regardless of the hell Sepha had seen of the war in Africa, he could still not accept that the land he knew was no longer there, and that he was no longer a part of it. Every day he lived his life with the future in mind, blindly waiting for tomorrow to come, never realizing what had become of the present. Somewhere along the road, he began to drag his feet, and the weight felt a little heavier.
In his mind, somewhere things were supposed to change. In the land of opportunity, he was supposed to become someone. At one point, he decided to go to college, not because he really wanted an education, but because he wanted the title. He wanted an identity, and in a place where he had nothing of his own, it was his best effort at trying to find a way to assimilate. It was supposed to be his beginning, an accomplishment that would establish his roots, and give meaning to his being there. Yet, nothing came of it. Nothing became of Sepha’s life at all. He’d become so afraid of losing everything that he settled for having nothing.
However, when Judith and Naomi came into his life, he finally saw something that he wanted, desperately. The problem was that in his eyes they were worlds away. He finally saw the harsh reality of America. There were limits; here he would never be given the time of day. Not only by Judith, but also by anyone, because he came from a war-torn country, an impoverished country, a bloody country that was not America. His people were pitied and looked down on, or they were feared. Never was he to be seen as respected unless he proved himself. This was America, the land of the free. A country where you work for what you want, but Sepha could never find his place. Not in his neighborhood, not with Judith, and not in Africa. His problem was he never knew where he truly would land his step. He longed for one life, and let his own life just pass by.
As an immigrant, I do understand Sepha’s struggle to move on. While we are all aware what kind of opportunities America has to offer, it’s hard not to look back on what you left. Often it feels like when you migrate to America, you expect a grand life and are blind to the reality that you are not the only one racing towards this goal. My mother often tells me that I have everything I could want here. While I agree, there are moments where I wonder what could life had been like if I had stayed in the Phillippines. There are still times I wonder what will be waiting for me if or when I go back.
Another unfortunate fact is that while I may love going home, memories can make things better than they are. Nostalgia can trick your mind into obsessing over a place that no longer exists. Also, another problem with being an immigrant is never being able to fully assimilate into other cultures without losing parts of your own. The values that are highly upheld in one country may not be a respectable or admirable value in another. The blurred lines between generations of immigrants become difficult to distinguish, and problems arise as to what culture should be more dominantly practiced.
So which country is really home? What I’ve learned is that while I wish to call both countries my home. I can only say that the Philippines was where I was born. My home is in America, in the places I’ve grown up. While my family has found a good balance with assimilating parts of my Filipino culture and American, I still identify more with the latter. When I am in the Philippines, this is where I feel more foreign. Their social norms and mores are completely different from where I was raised, but at least it is still relatable. I have been exposed to enough of my culture, told enough stories, and reminded of fond memories enough that in my heart, the troubles of my people are not disregarded. I am fortunate to have come here, and, yes, I do look back. However, when I see myself moving forward, the only home I see is here in America.
--Jeanne StaAna

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Monday, October 06, 2014

[Memphis Reads 2014] Fresh Reads Top Ten Winner Katie Dorsey

Fresh Reads Essay Contest Winner Katie Dorsey
        Throughout the book, readers see that Sepha Stephanos is constantly torn between his home in Ethiopia and his present life in America. Readers also get a constant feeling that he struggles with the sense of identity.
Towards the beginning of the book, Judith and Naomi invite Sepha to their house for dinner. “I stepped back from the mirror and practiced my introduction. I wanted to be ready for the moment Judith opened the door and found me standing on her steps” (51). This excerpt is one example of Sepha struggling with his identity. He wants the evening to go perfectly, so he practices different ways to say hello. Instead of eating at the dining room table, Judith suggests eating on the couches in the living room. “I tried to erase any sound of food being ground into bits by chewing slowly, but it was never quite enough. I was still there, with all of my flaws, in Judith’s immaculate living room, which was larger and grander than anything I had ever sat and eaten in since coming to Logan Circle” (55). Through this excerpt, readers see that Sepha wants to be the perfect gentleman, but then comes to the realization that he cannot, because he is flawed.
     Throughout the book, Sepha constantly refers to his life in Ethiopia. Towards the end of the novel, Sepha says, “I searched for familiarity whenever I went” (175). He was reminded of home when was saw streets that intersected at weird angles or in the layout of the buildings around him. Sometimes, he would let his imagination get the best of him. For example, he would walk across campus with his father and talk to him about what was going on that day.
       In today’s society, many people are going through the same struggle as the main character; we are being pulled between two “places.” Some of us are pulled between our parents in a divorce or between two friends who are fighting. For someone who is adopted, the constant pull is between wondering why your parents left and not really wanting to know why.
       When I was three months old, I was left in front of the court house steps in China. I was found and brought to the orphanage and from there I was adopted by my parents. Throughout my childhood, I never struggled with my adoption; I always saw my adopted parents as my real parents. As I started getting older, the topic of adoption was brought up through literature or in history class, whenever the country of China was brought up. I remember coming home from school and asking my mom about my biological parents. She said that neither she nor the adoption agency knew anything about them. I told her that it was okay and I was just curious.
       Around the age of sixteen, I struggled with my adoption more than I ever had in the past. I was constantly wondering why my parents left me and why didn’t they try to raise me. These questions consumed my brain night and day to a point where I had an emotional breakdown in class. My mom came and got me from school but instead of going home, we drove around and talked. I asked her why my parents didn’t even at least try to raise me and why they just threw me away. She said that they had a law in China where a family could only have one child. Another thing that I told her was what if I was a mistake? How could my mom just leave me, especially after carrying me around in her stomach for nine months? My mom said she did not have all the answers and that she wished she did. The most important thing my mom told me that day was, “You will always be my daughter, regardless of you being adopted. Your father and I love you with all of our hearts and nothing will ever change that.”
       The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears is a book that many people can relate to. The main character is constantly searching for a home in America while still remembering his home in Ethiopia. In today’s society, we also have the same feelings; we are continuously being torn between two people, places, or decisions.
-- Katie Dorsey

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Wednesday, October 01, 2014

[Memphis Reads 2014] Fresh Reads Top Ten Winner Hozyer Saeed

      Fresh Reads Essay Contest Winner Hozyer Saeed
      “Living here is as close to living back home as one can get, which is precisely why I moved out after two years and precisely why my uncle has never left.” In this part of the book, Stephanos tries to visit the old apartments he lived in with his uncle, but he was not there. While Sepha is there, he realizes how much the apartments felt like back home. But if he missed Ethiopia so much, why would he leave those apartments if they reminded him of back home?

Throughout the book the reader is able to see Stephanos go through a complicated stage in his life. Some days he wants to give up, put down everything, and abandon his corner store and go back to his homeland. “As a capital city, it doesn’t seem like much. Sixty-eight square miles, shaped roughly like a diamond, divided into four quadrants, erected out of what was once mainly swampland. Its resemblance to Addis, if not always in substance, then at least in form, has always been striking to me.” All through the story, Stephanos tries to compare America to his homeland, maybe to make himself feel better, maybe to make himself feel as if he is at home. His stay here, in America, seems like it would work out for him, but he refuses to accept change. If he tightened up his store and became more social, he would have a good life. Sepha does not want to accept that fact, though. He says, “I refused to acknowledge the charm of a sunset or the pleasure of a summer afternoon. If possible, I would have denied myself the right to breathe another country’s air or walk on its ground.” The negative attitude really impacts his stay, causing him to live a bit miserably.

While reading The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears I would connect to Sepha time after time. Dinaw, the author, did a great job making sure he connects his foreign readers to Sepha, which made this book intriguing. I, like Stephanos, have also been in the situation where I was stuck between a rock and a hard place. I was much in the same position as him, where I missed home, Kurdistan, where I was born, but I was not able to go back with ease. Entering America in 1996 was mostly every Kurd’s dream, because of the harsh times it was going through. People were getting abused by the Iraqi government; it was awful to live there. I am grateful that we had the opportunity to move to the United States, but sometimes you stop and wish things had worked out better at home and none of that happened. Everything has either a positive or negative consequence, in most cases both. The negative part of living in America was not being able to be with the rest of your family. That was the biggest disappointment. You also miss out on the culture back home. When you do get here to the States, you are mixed with the American culture and often times forget about your own. I have no uncles, aunts, or cousins here; it is only my brother, two sisters, mom and dad. I am grateful to have them here, although it would be undoubtedly better to have the rest of the family.

My family and I had our green cards since 2006, giving us permanent resident, which also gave us the privilege of traveling back home, but when we did, there was always a bad outcome. The expense of going back is extremely large. It usually affected us here, but we might not show it when we get back, because it is worth every penny when we see our family. That was half of the problem; the other half was always being questioned and taking longer for our documents to get here conveniently because of the September 11. Since we were Middle Eastern citizens at the time, they made us go through extra investigation before allowing us to go home. After years of waiting anxiously, the chance finally came for my parents to take the Oath of Allegiance in 2006 and to become citizens of the United States. Although it made the process of going back home quicker, because we did not have to worry about going through the extra investigations, it did not help financially. We have gone back four times and on average we roughly spent around $10,000 on gifts, food, hotels, etc., not including plane tickets for each member of the family. There are six of us, and it costs $2,000 per person. It never mattered, though, when we are back home in Kurdistan; the price would not affect us until we made it back to the States. Then it was going back to work on a daily basis for my parents. Most occasions they hoped they got the chance to work overtime or come in during the weekends, because that is how hard we were impacted financially from going home to see family.

Like Sepha, there are always communications between us and the rest of the family back in Kurdistan, thanks to electronics. It has been easier, too, over time as devices have gotten more advanced. Now we use tools and phone applications like Viber or Facebook that help us connect to them easier and smoother. As I get older, I get more fond of my hometown. Now I am making plans to visit soon.

--Hozyer Saeed

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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

[Library Events and Programs] "Memphis Reads" Community Read Begins Tomorrow

Tomorrow (October 1, 2014)  marks the official start of Memphis Reads, a community-wide initiative presented by a partnership between Christian Brothers University and the Memphis Public Library. 

The Memphis Reads title for 2014 is The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu.

About the book: 
The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, first published in 2007, blends fiction with fact and Mengestu’s own history, detailing the experiences of an Ethiopian immigrant living in Washington, DC after fleeing his country’s revolution seventeen years earlier. Told in a haunting and powerful first-person narration, the novel is a deeply affecting and unforgettable examination of what it means to lose a family and a country—and what it takes to create a new home. It deals with themes that are increasingly prevalent in our national and international conversations such as immigration, race, the concept of family, and the increasing divide between poverty and wealth. It won the Guardian Unlimited’s First Book Award and was named a New York Times Notable Book.

This book is available at the Memphis Public Library also as a downloadable e-book and book club kit from our Books in a Bag service. (Click for library catalog

Dinaw Mengestu's public reading and book talk are November 4, 2014

Click the tags, CBU Fresh Reads or Fresh Reads Top 10 Essays, for the top ten winning essays inspired by Mengestu's novel from participants in Christian Brothers University's Fresh Reads program. These essays will continue to post throughout the month of October. 

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[Library Events and Programs] What's Your Flavor Returns October 1, 2014

What's Your Flavor, the Memphis Public Library's reader's advisory presentations, are back! What's Your Flavor is a great way to learn history, characteristics, and trends in different book genres. 

The first session is about Teen Fiction but you don't have to be a teen to read and enjoy this genre. Join us at the Central Library on Wednesday October 1 at 2:00 p.m. to find out why. 

YA! RA! Hooray
Teen Fiction
Wednesday, October 1
2:00 - 5:00 p.m.

Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library
3030 Poplar Ave.
Room L-56

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