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Elsewhere: Books about the Rest of the World

August 25, 2022

I feel like I am a relatively intelligent human being. That said, I have some huge holes in my education, and one of them is in geography. If I’m ever on Jeopardy! and that category comes up, I might as well just give all my money back. One of the other holes is world governments, and with all the crazy events happening in the world, I knew this was something I needed to change. So I set out on a quest to better educate myself by reading about different cultures in troubled spots. 

This is what I learned:

I have been fascinated with the piano for my whole life. So when this one came across my desk, I knew I was going to read it. I own a studio grand piano, and the thought of transporting it across thousands of miles in less than hospitable conditions makes me less than happy. But, if I had been exiled to the vastness of Siberia and had the option, I might just take it. First of all, let me say that I knew where Siberia was, but I had no idea how large it was. Basically, Siberia includes everything in Russia east of the Ural Mountains. It was a favorite destination of relocation for political dissidents and basically people that disagreed with those in charge – first the tsar, then the Bolsheviks, then Stalin. But from what I could tell, it is a very beautiful, if cold, part of the country, and author Sophy Roberts explored as much as she could before the Russian authorities refused to renew her visa. I had no idea that pianos in the steppe was a thing, but I found this book fascinating.

This book was totally not what I expected, but it was completely captivating. It’s about life in a small town in Chinese Tibet. I guess I thought it was going to be more of a Shangri-La experience like in Bhutan or something. It was not. Life for Tibetans in China has been challenging since the 1930s, and I had no idea. I’ve always assumed that Tibet was its own country, but it is under Chinese control. And now after the recent Winter Olympics, where US politicians and other allies boycotted for human rights violations, I better understand why. I’d read Demick’s book on North Korea and was curious to see what she would do with this topic. I wasn’t disappointed. NPL has the audio or ebook, but if you want a print copy, you can request it through ILL. Get your request in now to start learning about this small portion of the world.

A good companion to reading about Tibet was then to read about Hong Kong. I remember when Hong Kong switched hands and went from being a British Consulate to part of China. I remember no one being that concerned about the change. Fast forward 25 years, and China has passed a national security law, which makes it illegal for anyone in Hong Kong to say anything negative about China. This, in turn, makes it hard for journalists, like Cheung, to make a living unless they agree to publish government propaganda. Parts of this book were interesting and informative, but I have to say I did not enjoy the first half. It got a little bogged down in the author’s family drama and mental health. Once we got past that, it was fascinating. I especially enjoyed the chapter on the music scene in Hong Kong (but you knew I would say that, right?). 

The Winter 2022 Olympics were held in Beijing, China. The US, and most other western nations, did not send a diplomatic representation because of China’s issues with human rights violations. I knew that China was a very different country than the US when it came to personal freedoms, but I didn’t know there were specific problems with their policies. The issue on the table is that China is being accused of genocide against the Uygher people, a Muslim minority living in the Xinjiang province in western China. This author is a Uygher woman who had relocated to France with her family when her husband sought refugee status there. Her former employee lured her back to China under questionable circumstances, where they promptly arrested and detained her, first in prison, then in a reeducation camp. Thanks to the tireless efforts of her husband and daughter, who were still in France, she was eventually released after three torturous years. This is an excellent read for anyone who, like me, was puzzled about all the drama with China during the Olympics. 

I mostly know where Syria is thanks to its capital city of Damascus, but I had no idea what was going on inside of this Middle Eastern country. I knew that a lot of people were fleeing and becoming refugees, but I had no idea why. Abouzeid risked her life multiple times to sneak into Syria as a female journalist and tell the stories of Syria’s people. I can’t believe the level of detail and narrative she was able to learn and share. I can’t even try to imagine a project like this. I wouldn’t say that I enjoyed reading this one – the body count is pretty high after all. But I think this is a necessary read in order to better understand what is happening in our world. 

Do I feel smarter after my quest? I guess so. But I’m also sad that the world is so hard for so many people. And I’m thankful for all the brave journalists who risked their lives to tell these stories. We can’t make anything better if we don’t know that it’s broken in the first place. Check out these gems and start your journey today.

Happy learning…
:) Amanda

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Amanda is a classically-trained pianist who loves to read. Like any good librarian, she also has two cats named after Italian cities. Amanda spends her free time sitting in Nashville traffic, baking, and running the Interlibrary Loan office at the Nashville Public Library.

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