Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Review: 'Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf' by Helene Cooper

I am always on the search for non-fiction reads that introduce me to amazing women I have never heard of or teach me about world history I definitely should already know more about. So when I saw Simon & Schuster's recent release Madame President I had to sit down for a second in shame, since I 1. hadn't realised that Libera has a female president, and 2. had to admit I new woefully little about Liberia's civil wars. After this, rather long, second of shame, however, I got right to reading Madame President and I definitely feel a lot more informed about the world I live in. Thanks to Simon & Schuster andNetgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 07/03/2017
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

The harrowing, but triumphant story of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, leader of the Liberian women’s movement, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and the first democratically elected female president in African history.
When Ellen Johnson Sirleaf won the 2005 Liberian presidential election, she demolished a barrier few thought possible, obliterating centuries of patriarchal rule to become the first female elected head of state in Africa’s history. Madame President is the inspiring, often heartbreaking story of Sirleaf’s evolution from an ordinary Liberian mother of four boys to international banking executive, from a victim of domestic violence to a political icon, from a post-war president to a Nobel Peace Prize winner. 
Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and bestselling author Helene Cooper deftly weaves Sirleaf’s personal story into the larger narrative of the coming of age of Liberian women. The highs and lows of Sirleaf’s life are filled with indelible images; from imprisonment in a jail cell for standing up to Liberia’s military government to addressing the United States Congress, from reeling under the onslaught of the Ebola pandemic to signing a deal with Hillary Clinton when she was still Secretary of State that enshrined American support for Liberia’s future.
Sirleaf’s personality shines throughout this riveting biography. Ultimately, Madame President is the story of Liberia’s greatest daughter, and the universal lessons we can all learn from this “Oracle” of African women. 
As said above, I knew hardly anything about Liberia before reading Madame President. I knew Liberia had suffered through incredibly rough civil wars, that Charles Taylor was involved and that Liberia's debt had somehow been forgiven. But how the country came into existence, what its make up was, its resources, its culture, all of that was unfamiliar to me. Despite being a biography for Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Madame President also goes into Liberia's history, from its creation for liberated slaves by the United States, through its internal racial struggles, its civil wars and its attempts at recovery, all the way to Ebola. Cooper combines the journeys of Liberia and Ellen, in an attempt to show the ground the two have covered in the past decades alone. Reading Madame President gave me a whole new sense of appreciation for the work done by women all around the world in some of the poorest countries in the world. As a white woman from Europe it is easy to appreciate your own freedom and "understand" the long road still to go for women in other countries. But it is so important for authors such as Helene Cooper, herself born in Liberia, to give voice to the stories and women of their countries so it becomes impossible for anyone to turn a blind eye both to the suffering and progress made by women in third world countries.

Cooper does not spare the reader from the harsh realities of what occurred in Liberia. The Liberian Civil Wars,which together lasted from 1989 to 2003, tore the country apart and created a generation of child soldiers who were abused, drugged and exposed to the worst humanity has to offer at too young an age. As a young child myself, Liberia's civil wars were a distant but present danger, a constant reminder that we in the West couldn't just pretend the world had entered a peaceful age. Cooper does not shy away from describing what happened day after day to the innocent people in Liberia, but also avoids the trap of using it for her own sake. Madame President is not sensationalist or exploitative of the civil wars, but addresses it head on. There is a sense in which it all feels almost impossible. That a country in which an estimated 75% of women has suffered rape and sexual abuse elects a female, Harvard-educated president, who then uses her whole strength and knowledge to get $4.6 billion debt relief, feels like a dream. How is this possible if a country such as America can't even elect the most qualified candidate for president ever because she's female? Cooper manages to bring a feeling of destiny to this journey, which makes Madame President, in the end, a very inspiring read.

Helene Cooper strikes a brilliant tone in this biography. I always find biographies challenging reads because the authors have to walk a very fine line. On the one hand their job requires them to make their chosen subject seem like the most interesting person ever. Why otherwise would anyone want to pick up the book and read about them? On the other hand, they can't glorify their subject too much either because readers will see straight through that. Cooper manages to walk that line. She combines Ellen's journey with that of Liberia, managing to cast Ellen both as a woman made by Liberia and a woman who made Liberia. By informing the reader of Liberia's history and Ellen's own life, Madame President is inspirational in showing how anyone can rise through circumstances to help their country and help their people, but also never attempts to only show Ellen's good side. Cooper's portrayal of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf remains human, flawed, strong, inspired, desperate, opportunistic and convinced. After finishing Madame President the reader both has an idea of what it took for Ellen to become and remain President, but also what it takes for anyone to gain and retain power in a country as torn as Liberia.

I give this biography...

4 Universes!

Reading Madame President gave me a lot. Not just new knowledge about Liberia, but also a sense of awe for the ability of humans to rise, struggle, fight and survive. The biography is incredibly well-researched and has left me with a lot of new regions and people to learn about and learn from. I'd recommend this to those interested in African history and Women's stories.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Review: 'Larchfield' by Polly Clark

Put together a poetess, a suffocating small town and a great poet's struggle with his homosexuality and you can have yourself a brilliant novel. However, you could also have a complete trainwreck, as an author tries to deal with too many topics at the same time. Thankfully Polly Clark weaves some beautiful magic in Larchfield, creating a novel that is both exhilarating and painful at the same time. Thanks to Quercus Books and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 23/03/2017
Publisher: Quercus Books
It’s early summer when a young poet, Dora Fielding, moves to Helensburgh on the west coast of Scotland and her hopes are first challenged. Newly married, pregnant, she’s excited by the prospect of a life that combines family and creativity. She thinks she knows what being a person, a wife, a mother, means. She is soon shown that she is wrong. As the battle begins for her very sense of self, Dora comes to find the realities of small town life suffocating, and, eventually, terrifying; until she finds a way to escape reality altogether. 
Another poet, she discovers, lived in Helensburgh once. Wystan H. Auden, brilliant and awkward at 24, with his first book of poetry published, should be embarking on success and society in London. Instead, in 1930, fleeing a broken engagement, he takes a teaching post at Larchfield School for boys where he is mocked for his Englishness and suspected - rightly - of homosexuality. Yet in this repressed limbo Wystan will fall in love for the first time, even as he fights his deepest fears. 
The need for human connection compels these two vulnerable outsiders to find each other and make a reality of their own that will save them both. Echoing the depths of Possession, the elegance of The Stranger's Child and the ingenuity of Longbourn, Larchfield is a beautiful and haunting novel about heroism - the unusual bravery that allows unusual people to go on living; to transcend banality and suffering with the power of their imagination.
At the beginning of this novel I have to admit something shameful. For an English Literature degree holder, I know woefully little about W.H. Auden. I knew he was gay, I had cried over his poem' Funeral Blues' in Four Weddings and a Funeral and have been meaning to read The Orators for a while. But I had never truly connected to him in the way I have to other poets. So when I found Larchfield I saw it as an opportunity to find my way towards Auden in a different way. And now, thanks to Polly Clark, there is a soft spot for Wystan in my heart, a connection to the sense of isolation and otherness that he felt, that echoes in his work. It's s great feat of Clark that she can bring someone like Auden into her novel without treating him as 'larger than life'. There is clear respect for him, but she doesn't hesitate to make him real, make him personal, flawed and thereby fascinating. She also doesn't sacrifice her own characters, Dora and Kit, for him, giving them as much time and personality throughout Larchfield. I found myself walking away from this novel really wanting to read more Auden, as well as return to Scotland, breathe sea air and connect.

At the centre of Larchfield sits Dora, a young woman, a poet, and new mother, who follows her husband to Helensburgh in the hope to start a new life that has everything. But Helensburgh is a small town, with means there are eyes everywhere, loyalties run deep and Christianity and motherhood are sticks to beat newcomers with. Clark paints the stifling closeness, the burden of expectations and the pressure of having to be, beautifully. The growing weight on Dora's shoulders, as she finds her world shrink to her house, then only to the safe spots where no one can hear her, and finally only to Wystan H. Auden. The pressures on Dora, her desperation to remain creative and productive, her fear of not being a good mother, her anger at her husband and her neighbours, and finally her helplessness at being confronted with the seemingly rigid world around her. All of it comes across very well and it all feels credible.They are recognisable burdens for many women and Clark manages to avoid the pitfalls that unfortunately comes from writing about women, avoiding many of the cliches and making Dora feel like a real woman. 

Clark lets the reader enter her characters' minds without forcing the characters to lay themselves bare. Dora's slow descent into utter unhappiness is so gradual and delicate that, although it doesn't come as a surprise, it still hits hard just how harsh it is. Larchfield is filled with characters that are troubled, that have burdens weighing on them, secrets to keep and fears to hide. Clark, by combining modern day Dora and past Auden, shows the continuing struggle of humans to feel included, to belong. Through Auden Clark is able to address the stigma that haunts homosexuals, both then and now, the crippling feeling of otherness and wrongness that pervades much of their lives. Through Dora Clark shows the pressures of modern day motherhood and womanhood, how nothing is every good enough and how the facade of happiness and perfection only deepens the cracks inside. 

I give this novel...
4 Universes!

I was completely taken in by Larchfield. Dora and Auden are wonderful characters that allow readers to join them on their journeys, even if only for a short while. There is both sadness and beauty to be found in Larchfield, and I think that's exactly how it's supposed to be. I'd recommend this to fans of Literary Fiction and Women's Fiction.