Review: Ruby by Cynthia Bond

ruby

 

“Ruby Bell was a constant reminder of what could befall a woman whose shoe heels were too high. The people of Liberty Township wove her into cautionary tales of the wages of sin and travel. They called her buck-crazy. Howling, half-naked mad. The fact that she had come back from New York City made this somewhat understandable to the town.”

I went into this novel without knowing much about it, and from the first paragraph (copied above) I was completely blown away. Set in the Deep South, this book is the story of Ruby and Ephram, her childhood friend. It deals with the hard hitting issues that face black people in America, particularly women, and also the LGBTQ community. Ruby was taken to live with a white woman from a young age, and returns to the town after many years away in New York. Although she at first looks the part of a sophisticated city woman, this slowly falls away as her imagination enfolds her, in order to protect her from a harsh reality. Meanwhile, Ephram has never left town, nor the house where his sister raised him. But he has never forgotten Ruby.

The author has managed to blend beautiful imagery and metaphors with the awful realities that many black people have faced throughout history. Although it at times becomes difficult to read, it seems like a just way to deal with the atrocities of abuse, rape and lynching.

A powerful message running through the book is that if we are told enough what people think we are, it’s what we become. Ruby is told time and time again from a young age what white men think she is, and as she grows older it becomes her only way of identifying herself. Whenever Ephram’s sister tells him he’s hurting, his body begins to ache until he cannot move. This emphasises the terrible power labelling others can have throughout their lives.

Despite not understanding each other, Ephram is drawn to Ruby, until she too becomes attached to him. Ephram finds Ruby lying in a pool of mud beside the road and instead of thinking her to be crazy, he sees that she has hidden herself in nature, even though he doesn’t understand why.

“He wanted to tell her that he had seen a part of the night sky resting in her eyes and he knew it because it lived in him as well. He wanted to tell her about the knot corded about his heart and how he needed her help to loose the binding.”

The beauty and innocence of their relationship despite all of the sorrows they have suffered provides a well needed respite. It gives hope against the odds without ruining the power of the narrative. This fragile hope is reflected in the imagery of nature that protects Ruby from the humans around her. To her, humans are dangerous; Nature is safe.

“The audacious hope of rooted things. The innocent anticipation of the shooting stalks, the quivering stillness of the watching trees.”

Along with a similar setting and shared themes, the writing style of this book often reminded me of the imagery in To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s truly unmissable.

 

Three things living in the Middle East has taught me.

As part of my degree I’ve now spent over four months in the Middle East; three months in Morocco and I’m now halfway through my stay in Jordan. Aside from Arabic – which is still very much a work in process – here’s just a few of the things I’ve learned.

How to eat with my hands
Every day in Morocco my friends and I would eat at a local cafe; by cafe a room that opened onto the street. There was no menu, and the food was cheap, simple and delicious. They were extremely welcoming but we soon realised that they only had two forks and about 30 people were eating their at any one time. Eating a bowl of beans, or even chicken can seem pretty daunting with just bread for cutlery, but with a lot of messy fingers and sneaky glances at how other people did it, we all got there in the end. Yes, there is a skill to it.

How to guess what people are saying (when I had absolutely no idea.)
Although I’d spent two years learning Arabic before going to Morocco, I soon realised that it wasn’t going to be much help with people day-to-day. The Arabic in Morocco is so far removed from the Arabic I had learned that even other Arabs can’t understand them. The first time I took a taxi alone I tried to speak to the driver in Arabic and he replied; “sorry, no speak French.” After this I realised how much you could get from a person just be reading their body language, but also that sometimes you just have to agree as if you understand, even when you have no clue what’s happening.

That British people really aren’t as polite as we think we are.
Compared with French and Spanish people, I’d often found the British manners that have been drilled into me from birth to be awkward and unnecessary. Not in the Middle East. While we may repeat sorry, please and thank you constantly, Arab pleasantries can take up an hour. To my knowledge there’s at least 8 ways to say thank you that all have different uses, and there’s even a special phrase to say to people who just had a shower. And people actually use it everyday. Seriously. Everyday. Arabs are so polite that if you compliment one of their possessions, they will immediately offer it to you. My friend casually complimented a woman’s dress, only for her to appear moments later with the dress wrapped up, ready for my friend to take home. British manners really bear no comparison.

This is by no means a comprehensive list, and I’m sure there’s still many things I will learn in the time I have left. More than anything I’ve learned to leave all and any expectations on the plane, and to enter into a new culture with a completely open mind.

Review: Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

41cd6wyaxll-_sx324_bo1204203200_Genre: Non-Fiction

Length: 300 Pages

Publication Date:  7 October 2014

Synopsis: In Being Mortal, Atul Gawande discusses why medicine needs to focus not only on prolonging life, but improving quality of life for those in the final stages. Too often is suffering increased in order to prolong life, while taking away the ability to enjoy it. Gawande putlines the ways in which he believes we can avoid this, with the aid of true accounts taken from his own medical experience. He offers examples of care for the elderly that do not take away their independence, and argues the value of enriching hospice care over life prolonging treatment. In short, he intends to prove that medicine can and should provide comfort and improved quality of life, right until our final moments.

Review: This book truly opened my eyes and forced me to consider a subject that too often becomes taboo among loved ones. It convincingly argues that there is a necessity to discuss how we wish to spend the final years of our lives, long before the time arrives.

It gives great insight into the state of elderly care with special reference to America, but can most likely be applied to many parts of the world. Through the use of anecdotes it outlines a persuading case for the prolongation of life when the elderly are able to maintain their independence, instead of being forced into care homes that treat them like children.

A case study I found particularly interesting focused on the positive effects of animals being introduced into care homes. It demonstrated remarkable improvement in the health of all of its residents, and also showed how much even giving each resident a plant could improve their mental wellbeing.
I also found the story of the author’s own father to be particularly poignant. Gawande uses it to stress the importance of asking those with terminal illness to decide on the point at which they no longer wish for their lives to be prolonged. For one man in the book this is when he can no longer eat ice cream and watch sports. But for Gawande’s father this point will come much sooner, and it’s obvious that choosing to respect this wish is incredibly difficult for anyone.

Although perhaps difficult for those of us who often worry about death, I would recommend this book to anyone. It beautifully handles a topic that is often left untouched. It may seem as though a book about the end of life could only be focused around death, but it is more a celebration of how wonderful life can be.

“In the end, people don’t view their life as merely the average of all its moments- which, after all, is mostly nothing much plus some sleep. For human beings, life is meaningful because it is a story. A story has a sense of a whole, and it’s arc is determined by the significant moments, the one where something happens. Measurements of people’s minute-by-minute levels of pleasure and pain miss this fundamental aspect of human existence. A seemingly happy life may be empty. A seemingly difficult life may be devoted to a great cause. We have purposes larger than ourselves.”

Why Learn Arabic? 

Why you should consider learning Arabic from the perspective of an Arabic student.

 

The number of university students who choose to learn Arabic is tiny, even among the already small foreign language departments. At my university, there is around 38,000 students and less than 150 of them study Arabic. In case you’re wondering, that’s 0.03%.

First let’s look at the facts:

Around 420 million people speak Arabic, making it the sixth most spoken language in the world.

It’s an official language of 28 countries.

It’s one of the six official languages of the United Nations.

Just the number of Arabic speakers in the world makes it clear that learning Arabic can open up all kinds of doors in terms of employment, or even just a new group of friends.  Not only is it clearly useful, but it can make you stand out from the crowd. Not many people choose to study Arabic and so it makes people curious.  It shows them that you’re willing to take on a challenge.

But is it worth it?

A simple answer to this question is that learning Arabic (beyond a few basic phrases) certainly isn’t for everyone. It takes a lot of time and effort to learn a language that shares almost nothing with English, and the differences between different dialects of Arabic mean that it is in fact several languages under the guise of one.

So why did I choose to study Arabic?

I’ve been asked this question by practically everyone I’ve ever spent more than ten minutes talking to. I chose to study Arabic because I already had a love for foreign languages and wanted to try something completely new – I wanted  a challenge. Arabic definitely gives me that, but that’s not why I’ve fallen in love with it.  What makes learning Arabic truly worthwhile is that it gives you a chance to use language in a was that is impossible in English, and it introduces you to one of the most open and generous cultures in the world. Never have people gone out of their way to make me feel at home like they do in the Middle East.

If you want to get to know a wonderful culture and a people that will truly bend over backwards to bring you into their world, then I can’t encourage you enough to try arabic. Yes it can be difficult, and sometimes it makes me feel as if I’m going backwards instead of forward. But it’s worth it.

The Arabic word that is often used for hello is “merhaba”. The literally translation of this word is not hello, but welcome.