Monday, August 14, 2017
I rarely write about the dangers and downsides of travel. Probably because I rarely have negative experiences, myself. That doesn’t mean they don’t happen. In Rod Jasmer’s terrifying memoir, Without Explanation: A True Story of Love and Loss in the Jungle, he describes the worst case scenario of a dream vacation that became a nightmare.
Jasmer and his wife, Valerie, traveled to Guatemala with another couple to hike in the jungle. It had been years since they’d traveled without their children and they were looking forward to their getaway. Once they arrived in Guatemala, they set out on their first trek, eager to get moving after the long journey and start exploring. They found their way to a remote Mayan temple, and there they watched the sun set on their first day in Guatemala. Unbeknownst to any of them, this would be Valerie’s last.
In the middle of the night, Jasmer was awakened by his wife’s strange breathing. Thinking she might be having a nightmare, he gently tried to wake her and quickly realized that something was terribly wrong with his wife. Her breathing was gurgled and she was unresponsive. He immediately began yelling for help and soon began administering CPR while their friends frantically tried to find help.
What followed was an ordeal that could only happen in a poverty-stricken country such as Guatemala. I was right there with Jasmer as he tried to convey the urgency of his situation to people unable to provide even the basic essentials to keep his wife alive.
The “ambulance” ride was roughly the equivalent of a van, driven by park rangers with no medical training. The hospital they went to was deserted and was little more than a clinic with old, dirty equipment. It reminded me of a cross between the clinic I helped build in Nicaragua on a mission trip, and the hospital that we visited while I was there. To call it unsanitary is an understatement. There were puddles of antifreeze dripping from the burn ward, which was the only air-conditioned area. Labor and delivery amounted to a room full of twin beds, mattresses with stained, dirty sheets, and women dressed in bloody t-shirts and slips after having given birth. The day we went there, we distributed baby blankets and diapers. The women only stayed a few hours after giving birth and then went home with their babies.
It was experiences like these that I pictured the whole time I was reading Without Explanation. To the modern world, the conditions in Guatemala seem surreal. The lack of resources is overwhelming and though Jasmer describes it as factually as it happened, it seems like something that couldn’t possibly be true. How, in this new millennium, could a woman’s body be put into a loosely-crafted pine box and loaded into the bed of a pick-up truck too short to allow the back to close, to then be transported for hours in the Guatemalan sun? Like Jasmer, I was astonished to think that this could be the fate of someone — the fate of one’s spouse — on what was supposed to be a dream vacation. Except that I wasn’t astonished. I’d experienced extreme conditions like this in Nicaragua.
Jasmer’s account of his wife’s final hours and the subsequent ordeal of trying to get her body back home was heartbreaking. Wracked with guilt, Jasmer wondered whether she would have survived had she been in a country with adequate care. She died without explanation.
I couldn’t put this book down. It almost seemed like I was experiencing Jasmer’s ordeal in real time. He put the reader right there with him for each excruciating turn of events during an aspect of travel that I rarely consider: what if something goes horribly wrong?
Friday, August 11, 2017
The New York Times: Footsteps
As a travel blogger, I completely understand how a place can shape a person's writing. It's why I write about travel; because places move and inspire me. The same obviously holds true for the authors studied in this book. Having another writer "walk a mile in their shoes" is such an invaluable look at what the author's may have felt and experienced while living in a place.
I've done that myself once. I traveled to Monroeville, Alabama and walked the abandoned streets where Harper Lee and Truman Capote spent their hot, summer childhoods. I sat in the spot where their treehouse stood (or as close to it as I could get) and imagined the view of small town life from there. The slow-moving rhythm of the Deep South and the prejudices and beliefs of the people who lived there. I've already written about it and thoroughly enjoyed reading what other writers had to say about the places these illustrious writers brought to life in their works.
Highly recommend this book!
Sunday, May 21, 2017
I've been toying with the idea of writing my memoir for a few years now. I've written parts; vignettes of different moments that all lead up to the whole story. I've taken a memoir class and joined writing groups. But something always stops me. I just can't get myself to sit down and do it. I opened the pages of The Story Cure, by Dinty W. Moore and vowed to follow his instruction and finish my book.
It didn't. It is full of great writing advice and examples. I liked the writing prompts, but I find whenever I do writing prompts that are supposed to bring back vivid memories and employ all the senses in my writing, they don't help me further with my memoir at all. The prompts have nothing to do with what I need to write.
So, I'm no further along in that regard. But I did enjoy the exercises and advice contained within this book. It's a great reminder that writing is work. Writing well is an art. Crafting stories is that people want to read is our goal. Now I need to get my butt in a chair and write!
** I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.
Thursday, December 1, 2016
As a girl, I LOVED watching the Carol Burnett Show. The entire cast felt magical to me and the returning characters Carol and the gang transformed into made me feel like they were people I knew. Mrs. H-Wiggins, Mama's Family, and all the special guest appearances were the focal point of my week. I couldn't wait for the show and to Carol come onstage to greet her guests.
Carol always entered wearing a long dress and my mother and I waited to see and rate her dresses. It was the 1970's, so what can I say? Some were pretty; some were hideous. Reflective of the times, I think.
Carol Burnett seemed so warm and genuine that she was the first "movie star" I wrote to and I received an autographed black & white photo of her in return. I still have it.
Reading this book took me back to those shows. I loved reading about the behind-the-scenes stories and about the numerous stars who appeared on the show. It was a blast from the past and made me want to sit down and watch old re-runs again. What can I say? Carol Burnett is a classic. By reading her book or watching her show, I feel like I'm one of the gang; I'm in such good company.
*I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review.
Friday, July 8, 2016
Last night, my daughter and I had the privilege of hearing Michael Kraus speak about his childhood spent in concentration camps. He's written a book about it, re-creating the diaries he kept while he was held in Terezin, then Auschwitz and Birkenau. His diaries were taken and undoubtedly destroyed, but once the Americans liberated him in 1945, he traveled back to his hometown in the Czech Republic and wrote them all again. He was fifteen.
We've heard other survivors speak about their experiences. Most famously, Elie Wiesel. But Michael Kraus spoke candidly about the conditions and horrors he lived through and shared with us some insights that most of us probably never thought about.
He talked first about how gradual things were. The Jews near Prague were slowly sent to the Terezin Ghetto. I visited there last year and was disturbed to learn that it was used as a model camp to fool the world into thinking that the conditions they were keeping the Jews in were humane.
Kraus, of course, said that the conditions there were much more bearable than when his family was sent to Auschwitz and I remembered hearing at Terezin that they kept the Jews so isolated and unaware of what was happening that once they started deporting people to the extermination camps, they were able to do so easily by promising them they could stay together with their families. So many of the prisoners there volunteered. Kraus' family was one that traveled to Auschwitz together, but then were segregated by sex once they arrived. He was glad to be with his father, but his father died not long after their arrival. He says it was the thought of his mother that kept him going. He knew she'd been deported to another camp and when he thought he couldn't bear any more, he thought about his mother and how devastated she would be if she learned he had perished. Sadly, his mother died in a camp in December 1944.
Kraus shared some insights that were news to us. He said in the beginning at Auschwitz, the Germans had the families write and postdate postcards to people they knew, saying that they were fine and conditions were good. I had not heard this part of their scheme, but easily believed it. Kraus' family was also spared being inspected/examined by Dr. Mengele by pure luck. That's what Kraus credits most of his survival to: pure luck.
Toward the end of the war, he and others were marched 80km out into a forest that was completely shaded from view as British and American planes flew overhead. The forest was muddy and they were emaciated. He felt that the Nazis had taken them there to leave them to die and break any association with them. That is where he was rescued by Americans and taken to a military hospital in Germany.
Some of the things that he shared about his experience after the war were the most interesting to me because they are things that we might not give much thought to.
First of all, he had to walk back to his hometown near Prague. He says it was not as laborious a walk since he was now free, but until July, it all seemed to be very much a war state. However, people shared food with him as he made his way back and he was taken in by a family friend who was the sole survivor of his family. Kraus returned to school even though he'd only had a 4th grade education by that time. He believes the schools turned a blind eye as these survivors returned to school. They clearly hadn't the formal education to enter at that stage, but they allowed them to continue their education. The remarkable part to me is that Kraus said no one ever spoke about it. He was still very isolated from society. Other students knew what he'd been through, but couldn't relate. They didn't know exactly what conditions he'd survived and they didn't talk about it, or recognize that it had happened to him. No one really talked to him at all. Partly due to language barriers, but partly because no one ever spoke of it.
Including Kraus. He married an Israeli woman and they had two children. He never spoke of his Holocaust experiences with them. His wife is the one who told them what he'd been through. He just suffered through the horror of those war years and then went on with his life as if it hadn't happened. I can't imagine what that was like. I can understand not wanting to talk about it or relive it, but it also seems almost impossible not to; to go on as if it had never happened.
But then, a decade ago, a woman in the Czech Republic learned of his diaries and persuaded him to publish. They worked on it together and he now speaks publicly on occasion. He is very matter-of-fact when he speaks, but also very honest about the atrocities he witnessed and survived.
How lucky we were to hear his story firsthand. How brave he was to tell it. It's a piece of history that many of us may never make sense of, but it's important we bear witness to these incredibly strong survivors and listen to them while we can.
Thursday, June 9, 2016
It's been a few years since I read a Terry McMillan book and I'm glad I finally remedied that. I'd forgotten what a master she is at writing about relationships and all the power dynamics and minutiae that changes over time. I was immediately caught up in Georgia's saga of looking up her old loves to see how they were and tell them that they'd meant something to her once. Each man and each of her girlfriends are such unique characters; complex, distinguishable from each other, and are characters you almost love or hate. They seem like real people.
Now that I've finished this book, I need to go find some of her older titles that I may have missed. She has an easy writing style that keeps me reading much later into the night than I ever intend to.
*The book was provided by BloggingforBooks in exchange for my honest review.
Wednesday, May 25, 2016
I'm a sucker for memoirs and this one drew me in immediately. I honestly couldn't put it down!
The author's story unfolds in bits and pieces and in a swirling, non-chronological order that would normally drive me nuts. But it worked for this story. It was like entering the author's rapid-cycling bipolar mind. Or any of our minds, really. We let our thoughts drift off to all sorts of periods in our life as we move through our days. That's what it was like to read this story.
Rob Roberge is many things: a writer, an addict, a drifter, a husband, and a person afflicted with rapid-cycling bipolar disorder that often leads to early dementia. It is this concern that seems to have lead him to write down his tale, memory-by-memory, before they are gone.
What a life he's lead! Much of it dysfunctional, but riveting in the way many stories are when people are able to put their lives in perspective and see how out-of-control things had been. Every time I picked up this book, I couldn't put it down. I thought I'd just read one more vignette. Then one more. Maybe one more. And before I knew it, I was done.
It's hard to find something else to read after a book like this. That's the mark of a great book to me.
*I received this book in return for my honest review. Lucky me.