Fizz: Nothing Is As It Seems (Israel)

Fizzby Zvi Schreiber

DISCLAIMER: I reviewed this book a few years ago for Foreword Reviews / Clarion Online. I loved it so much I decided to read it again. What the hell.

My friend Asa, a physics teacher who is originally from Sweden, is working on a grant to get more young girls interested in science and technology.

I think this book could be part of the answer.

Long ago, I read Sophie’s World by the Norwegian Jostein Gaarder. It blew me away. The book teaches you the history of philosophy while telling an entertaining story. Well, Fizz does the same–but for the history of science.

There’s a time machine. You meet Newton, and he’s cranky.


The year: 2110

The eco-commune that young Fizz has grown up in (hmmm…Israeli writer…commune…) in Iceland eschews science and technology as leading to prying, meddling, war, and destruction. Like other technophobic groups, they allow young members a trip to the Outside when they come of age, to decide for themselves how they wish to live. Despite considerable opposition, Fizz makes the choice to answer her questions about the world she lives in.

And really, isn’t everybody insanely curious about how the Universe(s) work? I know *I* am!

What the Eco-community doesn’t know is that Fizz’s dad, who left before she was born, has invented a time machine.

You heard me…a TIME MACHINE.

Fizz will spend her PCC (Personal Choice Clause) dining with Aristotle, throwing apples at Newton beside the river Cam, and discussing the mind-bending theory of Schrodinger’s Cat with Einstein himself. It’s all very Big Bang Theory.

But all along several questions plague Fizz: Would she rather live in her mom’s world or her dad’s? What really happened between her parents? Is it okay to label technology “evil” while accepting the benefits of advanced medicine?

The personalities of the real-life physicists are well-drawn: From the arrogant Aristotle (who thinks women are less human) to kindly old Galileo to the hostile and suspicious Newton, etc. Challenges that each scientist faced are presented boldly—opposition from the Church in the case of Copernicus, world wars that prevented Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein from communicating with other scientists, gender bias in the case of Marie Curie. Somehow, physics moved on—and young Fizz asks all the right questions.

Will she ever get home again? And if she does, how will she have changed?


I wish there was a novel like this for every area of human interest. Well, Zvi? Whatcha working on now? 😉


The Joys of Motherhood (Nigeria)

Joysby Buchi Emechta

The young and beautiful Nnu Ego is shamed in only the way a traditional African woman can be: Her body has betrayed her. She can’t bear children. As a woman, she is worthless. This sting only burrows deeper into her soul because she is the daughter of a chief–the favorite–the only child of his most beloved woman.

But Nnu Ego’s chi, her avatar, is cursed. Her chi, everyone believes, comes from the slave woman her father ordered to be slaughtered when his favorite wife, Nnu Ego’s mother, died. The chief has since renounced his ways, freed his slaves, and tried to make amends. But it is no use. The sins of the father are indeed visited upon the daughter.

That’s how the book begins. Despite the protagonist being an uneducated Nigerian woman of the Ibo tribe sometime before World War II, *I* identified with her life, like crazy.

I too have felt the shame…not of my childless state, which is certainly looked at with tolerance, if not approval in the modern world, but of being…grossly overweight. Yes, I too have felt like less of a woman. I too have felt the stares of strangers like poisoned darts ripping and tearing my flesh with their judgment. Their condemnation. How is that attractive to a man, the voices whisper? And for poor Nnu Ego, how is a “dry and juiceless” nervous childless woman to marry again?


If you think about it, the first question that is asked about a child is this: Boy or girl? No wonder our gender identity is so deeply rooted within us. No wonder it hurts so bad when, for whatever reason, our failure to be the perfect woman or perfect man shames us.

But Nnu Ego does not have to suffer for long. Her father procures a divorce from her attractive, impatient young husband and marries her off to a city slicker in Lagos, the capital, where she will be far away from the avaricious eyes and gossipy tongues of her former in-laws. Soon, Nnu Ego is pregnant with her first child. Joy! Or…not. She finds her husband a bit repulsive because he’s lazy, he’s the White Man’s tool, and er…well…he’s fat. And has a big head. In more ways than one.

Never mind, she has about 6 more children by him and does earn the respect of the community and of the farming village she left behind. However she still isn’t happy. Wtf? Society has told her all she has to do is pop out kids to feel fulfilled? So what’s wrong with her?


Nnu Ego can see clearly that her husband is a fool. She suffers several episodes of starvation. She wants to go back to her village, but is prevented by the thought of what all those relatives will say. She feels she has to make it in the capital, where life is much harder, she has to sacrifice for her children, which she dutifully does. She does it even though it hurts in the present and there is no reward; even though her oldest son is an entitled shit who takes after his father and never lifts a finger to help her. She sends him to America to study and she hopes and thinks and prays he will support her in her old age. Then it will all have been worth it.

But will there be an old age with Nnu Ego working herself to a sliver to support all those kids?

Ah, the joys of motherhood. They’re compounded when her husband’s older brother dies and he “inherits” the man’s four wives. As you can imagine, Nnu Ego is *NOT* happy about this. But she has very little choice. “She knew this woman, an ambitious kind of woman, who thought that now she was in Lagos she would eat fried food.”

Interestingly, this woman, the 2nd wife of Nnu Ego’s husband and the 4th and youngest wife of his late brother, she decides to run away. She decides she’s had enough of this man’s family, and she wishes to be free. So, she decides to set herself up in the market stall, put the money she inherited into schooling for her 2 daughters, and support herself as a prostitute.

Oh, the irony! The only freedom for women is through prostitution, but plural marriage has already made prostitutes of them. Hmmmmm.


Ms. Emechta does a brilliant job in describing a Nigeria that is changing so fast  that its people can’t keep up with it. You feel sorry for the men who are as trapped in their traditional roles, then no longer valued, as the women. But the women do have it hard. Brilliantly written, supremely felt.

And, having heard all my life from certain American relatives that “If I had it to do all over again, I would never have had children,” …it makes a person think.

5 Dozen Kegs of Palm Wine: The book was in fact pure and intact when it came to me.*

(Otherwise the wine kegs, supplied by the Ibo groom’s family, would have been only half full.)


A Small Place (Antigua)

by Jamaica Kincaid

SmallPlaceSetting: A 10 mile by 12 mile island in the British West Indies

Writing: Clear, clean, beautiful.

Narrator: Pissed off.

Since this book was referred to me by my friend Murphy, I was not expecting to violently dislike it. It was beautifully written. But I disliked it on at least two different levels.

1) The exploitation of the indigenous people by the British, followed by the exploitation of the poor indigenous people by the rich indigenous people, which Kincaid says is cause and effect and I tend to believe her.

2) The author’s tone for the first half of the book.

The book is written in the second person, which makes it both immediately accessible, but also intensely personal. It’s hard to understand in the abstract, even for English majors, so here’s an example:

“If you go to Antigua as a tourist, this is what you will see…the road on which you are travelling is a very bad road, very much in need of repair. You are feeling wonderful, so you say, ‘Oh, what a marvelous change these bad roads are from the splendid highways I am used to in North America.’ (Or worse, Europe.)…”


Antigua the country is made up of:

  • Antigua island
  • Barbuda island, where an English family named Condrington bred special groups of black slaves
  • Redonda island, where only booby birds live

Redonda, Kincaid tells us, is actually closer to the islands of Montserrat and Nevis than to Antigua, but the English person who drew the maps made it part of Antigua. Why? (It makes about as much sense as the Middle East. What I particularly hate about the way the maps were drawn is how different ethnic groups weren’t grouped together into countries. Wouldn’t that have been logical?)

When I read about the Redonda stamp scandal, and how a lot of money was made on those stamps but no one seems to know who got the money or where the stamps actually ended up, I was pretty mad. How I feel when I find out our government is paying $25 for a nail to a private contractor in Iraq.

And also, why are there so many Syrians in Antigua?


One thing I admire about women of non WASP-cultures is how fierce some of these “shes” are. Jamaica Kincaid is sassy. And so, apparently, is her mother. This woman once put the Minister of Culture in his place over the Redonda stamp scandal. She refused to be intimidated. That was awesome.


Ok. I understand that Kincaid is angry about colonization. She has every right to be. That’s her point of view and she has earned it through her life experiences. However, her life experiences do not invalidate my life experiences.

I am not the type of tourist she describes, and her assumptions about who I am and how I behave are offensive. Just as offensive as people in Tokyo telling me that all Westerners look alike because we have big noses (or worse, think alike). I don’t go to other countries and gawk at the locals as if they were monkeys in a cage. I don’t stay at the Marriot in Seoul and eat at Kentucky Fried Chicken in Bangkok. I interact with people, exchange stories with them, treat them as friends and neighbors. I didn’t vote for James Monroe. Give me a chance, ok?

Yes, the British Empire did awful things. But the British she is taking aim at are not the British who owned slaves or perpetuated atrocities. In fact, I learned how to be a “traveler-not-a-tourist” from 2 Brits.

If relations between people whose ancestors were colonized and people whose ancestors were colonizers are ever to advance, you can’t make assumptions about people. Are Robert Lee Yate’s children serial killers? No. But look at what their father did. Are they responsible? I have German friends. Should I assume they will behave a certain way because their grandparents were Nazis?

Did you ever wonder why it took 100 years from the end of the Civil War to Martin Luther King Jr. and then another 50 or so until Obama and Oprah? It’s because the old generations with their old prejudices and wrong thinking have to die off, and less prejudiced generations have to be born and teach the kids.

I’ve seen this in my own lifetime with anti-gay sentiment. Statistics show that young people support marriage equality in increasingly larger numbers than older people.

This Is Just My Opinion

So, my honest reaction to this book was that her attitude toward me, a reader she has never met, was off-putting. Do I get to say how she should feel or write? No. But with some minority writers, you feel that no matter how much you are horrified by their ordeal, and would genuinely like to become friends, they will never trust you or like you simply because of the color of your skin. I can’t say they should. But if Nelson Mandela had taken that attitude, where would South Africa be today? If the Dalai Llama hadn’t adopted an attitude of forgiveness toward the Chinese-who-tried-very-hard-to-wipe-out-Tibetan-culture, then his people would still have been mired in bitterness and the past. How is that helpful?


There are terrible human rights abuses going on in Antigua today. Powerful people in government who shouldn’t be running a country. People who are supposed to help the poor and who take the money for themselves instead. It makes you sick. Hopefully this book will be a catalyst for change.


Gods Little Bits of Wood (Senegal)

BitsofWoodby Ousmane Sembene

(And this gentleman is called the Father of African Film. How many Americans have ever heard of him?)

Come-to-Jesus Moment

A grandmother gets angry at her granddaughter for automatically replying to her in the White Man’s Language. Grandmother can’t understand it (and doesn’t want to)…while the girl is learning it in school…so Grandmother thinks she’s being sassed…when in fact it just slipped out of the kid, as natural as a burp.

Which is worse if you think about it, because so much forced assimilation begins with the annihilation of an indigenous language. And if you think words and word choices are petty details, consider this: A Swedish mystery writer refers to her character as being “married WITH her husband” instead of “married TO.” Kinda says it all right there, no?

Anyway, I was super confused because what the kid said wasn’t English.

I guess I automatically assume if you are the colonial white, *of course* you speak English. Lol

The Good Bits

I liked how the author presents all the sides of the strike: The men of the union, those men who had been bribed to leave the union by the Frenchmen, and the French ex-pats and their wives, some of whom genuinely think they are treating the natives well, so what are they getting so upset about?

Like when the plant manager accidentally shoots a child who was hunting for lizards to eat. The “Toubab” thinks the family should just understand that he didn’t mean to and let it go…ie, not start a riot. Never mind the fact that the kid is D.E.A.D. Oh well, it was an accident.

But it is the village women who carry this book; the wives and girlfriends of the railway strikers forced things to a change. They had to, because their children had no food, and no water.

Turns out the men have struck before, but the French forced them back to work.  Part of it had to do with World War II.

The men were made to retreat by the suffering of their families without money coming in and cornmeal in the pot. But during this strike the women are forced to march forward, in front of the men, by the suffering of their children. Although many of the women are privately getting fed up with their traditional structure of plural marriage, the second and third wives are pissed at being called “concubines” by the French when they are in fact, legal wives under African law.


One of my favorite characters is the pretty schoolgirl who speaks fluent French, wants to move to Paris, despises her un-educated and early married counterparts, and is massively confused. She’s identified deeply with the colonial culture but is insulted by the ex-pat community and harassed by French policemen on the street during the strike. She can never fit in, in France, but she no longer fits into her village either. She recognizes that plural marriage keeps women powerless, but still is powerfully attracted to the strike leader Bakayoko, who is already married.

This novel, based on the true 1947 strike of workers on the Dakar-Niger railway; the fight for decent wages and living conditions and quality of life is the same of workers everywhere…but the fight against The Man in this case was intensified by the poverty of Africa, the comparative wealth of French ex-pats, racism, and the history of European colonialism. Kind of makes you want to join the Wobblies.

Still, the workers win. Unfortunately some die so they can.

“God’s Bits of Wood”

The people of Senegal refer to themselves and their children using this expression, rather than call bad luck or the attention of evil spirits by speaking their true names out loud.


Sastun: My Apprenticeship With a Maya Healer (Belize)

Sastunby Dr. Rosita Arvigo

“Let your food be your medicine, and your medicine be your food.”–Hippocrates

DISCLAIMER: Rosita Arvigo is originally from the USA. However, the Maya healer she studied with unfortunately didn’t leave us any writings in English.

In 1969, the year *I* was born, Rosita Arvigo had just left a career in advertising in Chicago to “live closer to the land”. First she moved to San Francisco, then to a remote village in Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountains where she farmed beside the Nahuatl Indians. Dona Rita, a respected elder, taught Rosita the names and uses of medicinal plants.

By 1976 Rosita had moved to Belize, to caretake an organic farm. She returned to Chicago for 3 years to get her degree in “Naprapathy.” (I kept thinking she meant Naturopathy, but a quick trip to Wiki told me that what she studied is a spine-cracker kind of thing.) In cadaver class, she met a “handsome paramedic with healing hands.”

In 1981 they resettled in western Belize on 35 acres of uncleared jungle along the Macal River, near the Guatemalan border.

But it wasn’t until Rosita met Don Elijio Panti, an elderly Maya healer, that the real adventures began.


Belize used to be “British Honduras.” It’s made up of Garifuna people (descendants of Carib, Arawak and West African people); Creoles descended from African slaves; East Indians who came over as “indentured laborers”, Lebanese who came as chicle-bosses (yes, as in Chiclets) and postcolonial Mennonites, British, other Europeans and American expats like Rosita and Greg.


Well, it has to come from somewhere, right? Among Belize’s claims to fame is the Wiki comment “Birthplace of Chewing Gum.” Apparently the word chicle comes either from the Nahuatl word tziktli, or “sticky stuff” or the Mayan word tsicte. The Nahuatl-Aztecs and the Maya prized it for its subtle flavor and high sugar content.


You know those diagrams of pigs, sheep, and cows they used to show on TV in the 70s with all the cuts of meat marked and numbered? Going to the doctor in the US has often felt this way to me. I’m a collection of symptoms for the endocrinologist, who doesn’t treat anything having to do with dental or psychological, you know? The doctor doesn’t ask me what the gynecologist said (even though she is the one who noticed my enlarged thyroid.) I’m not treated in a whole-system way, the way Don Elijio treated his patients.

Don Elijio also had an understanding that when you got a person to laugh, half their troubles and sicknesses went away. When is the last time your doctor delighted you or made you laugh?


Don Elijio went through a lot in his own life. His father was a black magic practitioner–and an abusive drunk. The young Elijio vowed never to be like him, and to only  use his talents for healing. (Sadly his beloved daughter married a man just like her grandfather–without the magic–and was eventually killed by him.)

Don Elijio believed that his teacher, Jeronimo, had the ability turn into a jaguar after saying an ancient and secret prayer. He told Rosita he had even seen this one night. I didn’t know what to make of this part, or of the part where Rosita said prayers to the Maya spirits at her initiation and palm fronds rustled where there was no wind; but they were intriguing.


So what, you ask, is a Sastun? It’s a touchstone that allows you to determine the source of an illness or get divine answers to questions. Don Elijio’s was a green marble. I think Rosita’s was a stone.

Don Elijio was very concerned in the beginning when Rosita said she wanted to study with him, because she isn’t Maya and he wasn’t sure the spirits would accept her. But as it turns out, they don’t have enough adherents to be finicky. The knowledge of men and women like Don Elijio is being lost because young people don’t want to apprentice with traditional healers. Plant medicine takes too long. (Even though Big Pharma has derived some of its  most powerful drugs from plants, such as the birth control pill that uses ingredients Maya women have relied on for centuries.)


I liked how each chapter of the book begins with a plant and gives its Spanish and Maya names, plus what it is used for. I was a little suspicious of Rosa-and-Greg’s Rainforest Remedies, having seen a lot of scams in my prior job. But in addition to the website and the seminars and the jars and bottles, they also created a nature preserve and a memorial to the late Don Elijio, both of which I liked, and the book caries this note:

“Harper-San-Francisco and the author, in association with the Rainforest Action Network, will facilitate the planting of two trees for every one tree used in the manufacture of this book.”

This is a lady who believes what she says and lives what she believes. And *I* also believe that Western medicine is criminally and willfully ignorant about nutrition and natural healing.


Year of the Hare (Finland)

YearoftheHare by Arto Paasilinna

Fact One: I can’t say I’ve ever read a book by a Finnish author before. Fact Two: Mr. Paasilinna is the award-winning author of over 30 novels.

Conclusion: The American publishing industry is stupidly Ameri-centric. I hate that. This book was published in 1975 and is a Finnish and a French movie, but was only translated into English in 1995, thanks to a UNESCO grant.

Ok, so there’s this journalist riding to an assignment with his photographer and they hit a bunny with their car. The journalist makes the photographer stop the car, and he wanders off into the forest to find the little creature. The photographer gets tired of waiting and leaves him there. And just like that, Kaarlo Vatanen walks away from:

  • a wife he dislikes, a lady very much created by 1rst-world consumer culture
  • his stressful job at a major newspaper
  • his empty life in the big city of Helsinki

After finding a vet to set the hare’s broken leg, and advise him on the thing’s diet, Vatanen and his new best bunny caper around Finland having adventures. They run into a thieving crow and a scary brown polar bear (well, actually everything scares the hare). Vatanen has to outwit a bunch of humans who want to take the hare from him, including:

  • the police (does he have a license for that animal?)
  • a Swedish diplomat’s wife (but it’s so cuuuuuuuuute)
  • a crazy devotee of the old Norse religion who wants to sacrifice the bunny in the forest

At one point, Vatanen chases the polar bear across the border into the Soviet Union. Oops! Will he escape the Commies? What about the Capitalists? What about his grasping wife?

I enjoyed most of this book. The automatic assumptions of the character about people from different parts of Finland are fascinating and fresh if you’re not Scandinavian. Vatanen thinks Northerners are more like the original Finns while Southerners are sophisticated, and busier urbanites, for example.

At one point he ends up in a blizzard near the Arctic Circle and wanders into a stranger’s house, knowing they are bound by tradition to feed him and give him a place to sleep. Of course, the village doesn’t even have a store. A food truck comes twice a week instead.

WARNING: A crow and a bear *will* be harmed while reading this book.

Rating: Four fingers of Finlandia vodka! I would have given it 5 except for the incidents mentioned in the WARNING, above.

PS–The jacket describes the book as “funny”. I would say it’s more “witty”. The humor is dry rather than moist, but it’s there in the form of social criticism.