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Not Quite Paradise: An American Sojourn in Sri Lanka [Hardcover]

Adele Barker
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Book Description

Jan. 1 2010
A chronicle of life on the resplendent island, combining the immediacy of memoir with the vividness of travelogue and reportage
Adele Barker and her son, Noah, settled into the central highlands of Sri Lanka for an eighteen-month sojourn, immersing themselves in the customs, cultures, and landscapes of the island—its elephants, birds, and monkeys; its hot curries and sweet mangoes; the cacophony of its markets; the resonant evening chants from its temples. They hear stories of the island’s colorful past and its twenty-five-year civil war between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil Tigers. When, having returned home to Tucson, Barker awakes on December 26, 2004, to see televised images of the island’s southern shore disappearing into the ocean, she decides she must go back. Traveling from the southernmost coasts to the farthest outposts of the Tamil north, she witnesses the ravages of the tsunami that killed forty-eight thousand Sri Lankans in the space of twenty minutes, and reports from the ground on the triumphs and failures of relief efforts. Combining the immediacy of memoir and the vividness of travelogue with the insight of the best reportage, Not Quite Paradise chronicles life in a place few have ever visited.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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 “Rich in the tales of Sri Lanka under colonial British rule as well as coverage of the current civil war, Barker’s memoir is an enlightening and captivating read.”—Kristine Huntley, Booklist
“Anyone going to Sri Lanka should consider Adele Barker’s Not Quite Paradise essential reading. Even travelers headed to other parts of the globe—or those going no farther than their own living room—will find this story of an American woman thoughtfully wending her way through the complexities of another country’s culture and history fascinating.”—Kristin Ohlson, author of Stalking the Divine and coauthor of Kabul Beauty School
“Adele Barker offers this memorable gift: the story of strangers from very different countries becoming cherished and enduring friends. Against the background of a most beautiful country and through the tragedies that have marred its recent history, her love of the land and for its people won a high place in this reader’s heart.”—Mary Oliver, Pulitzer Prize–winning poet

From the Trade Paperback edition.

About the Author

Adele Barker, who was awarded a Ucross Fellowship for her work on this book, is the author or editor of five books on Russian literature and cultural life. Most recently, she received a Fulbright Senior Scholar grant to teach and write in Sri Lanka.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book is a not travelogue. It is a current history, if that makes sense.

_Not Quite Paradise: An American Sojourn in Sri Lanka_ is two books: one, about Professor Adele Barker's impressions of Sri Lanka in 2001 while she was teaching at the University of Peradeniya; and, one about her 2005 journey around the post-tsunami island.

The work is an admixture of diary-like entries, event reports, and interviews of Sri Lankans. She is thorough in her information gathering and ruthless in her text editing: there is so much to tell and so little space.

As a resident of Sri Lanka during similar periods, I concur with many of Prof. Barker's observations. She captures the flavor of the Island particularly life's uncertainties exacerbated by appalling war and marauding nature.

We ex pats cannot fathom the Sri Lankan story. She is humble enough to know so and that, like much in Asia, Sri Lanka is an 'onion' of which some layers are invisible due their transparency.

Author Barker has an occasional poetic turn of phrase that makes one linger over an idea, savoring it. Her ruminations about her path's impact on her loved ones are not unique but worthy of reflection.

Should you be traveling to Sri Lanka, or should you be an armchair historian, then I heartily recommend Adele Barker's Not Quite Paradise.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.8 out of 5 stars  16 reviews
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The 'pearl' of Southeast Asia: portrait of a divided and troubled island nation Jan. 28 2010
By S. McGee - Published on
This is an intriguing but uneven saga of an American professor's sojurn in Sri Lanka -- or rather, her two sojurns, one teaching as a Fulbright fellow to college students in the mountains near Kandy; another, two years later, as she returns to investigate what has happened to the 'pearl' of Southeast Asia in the wake of the tsunami.

It's a beautifully written and intriguing look at the divided country that is Sri Lanka -- hence the 3.5-star rating (which I've rounded up to 4 stars). But it never really transcends the "foreigner traveling through a strange and exotic land and writing about their experiences" genre, any more than the 19th century sagas by the British colonial officers that Barker reads and cites in the pages of this book did. At least Barker acknowledges the difficulty or impossibility of ever being more than a part of the culture, and she is certainly conscious of the all the ironies of Western relationships with the Tamils and Sinhalese communities. Aid agencies full of goodwill provide tsunami survivors with replacement fishing boats, but no nets, and no homes. The tourist areas are rapidly rebuilt; those that no tourist will ever see are left until last.

Barker's book covers a lot of ground, and will be of interest to those with a casual interest in Sri Lanka or looking for a basic overview of the country and its political, economic and social dilemmas. What is missing, however, is what transforms a memoir into something more important or significant -- an overarching theme. For instance, Emma Larkin (I believe, a pseudonym) wrote a fascinating book about following George Orwell's tracks through modern-day Burma. Given the themes that Orwell explored in his own writings, and the issues that dominate Burma/Myanmar today, that made for a brilliant work of reportage, one that gave to the writer's ruminations, random encounters and observations an overarching theme. That's missing here, and its absence nagged at me even while I enjoyed Barker's observations about such disparate topics as the difficulty of pronouncing Sinhalese, her battles with the ants, being a visible foreigner, and elephants.

Throughout the book, I kept wishing for more -- a theme, a unifying message, some kind of purpose to the book that would explain what Barker wanted to convey beyond simply -- here's an interesting place that you may only have heard about because of the tsunami. Why did Barker travel to Sri Lanka in particular -- was it a random choice by the Fulbright folks, or her choice? Her brief discussions of teaching Russian literature and Emily Dickinson's poems to the wartorn Jaffna late in the book made me wish she had found a way to integrate her teaching and her students throughout the book; it would have been more interesting than some of the rest of the content. In other parts, the reporting is too heavy-handed and self-conscious, almost as if she is looking from the outside at herself as she talks to a priest who tracks rainfall levels, or Tamils in Colombo recalling the beginning of the country's sectarian violence. Nowhere is it clear WHY she is asking these questions. What is it that motivated her to write this book? Or did she just decide, wow, if I'm going to be in Sri Lanka, a country off the beaten track, I might as well do this?

This book works well as a primer; an introduction to Sri Lanka, and would probably be a great book for anyone contemplating a trip there, or looking for some basic information to add to a Lonely Planet guidebook -- and in that context, I'd recommend it, strongly. But while Barker has some some compelling stories about intriguing individuals, but always seemed to back away when the most compelling parts of the narrative. The memoir approach, to me, didn't work: the book ended up feeling to me as if it wasn't about the tsunami, or the war, or the Tamil/Sinhalese rift, but about the author's experience of them, thoughts about them, etc. Despite its thoughtfulness and moments of compelling prose, it's a book that can't seem to make up its mind whether it's intended to be a memoir, travelogue, or something else. I wanted to love it, but couldn't.

I received a review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing EarlyReviewer program.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Could have been two books: one of them good Nov. 7 2010
By labfs39 - Published on
Less than a year ago, the Sri Lankan government announced that the 25 year old civil war with the Tamil Tigers was over. The end came after a horrific standoff on a tiny strip of land with civilians caught in the middle. After following the news that week in May of 2009, I felt compelled to learn more about the history of Sri Lanka and the war. My ignorance on the subject was complete: my only glimpse into the conflict coming from one of my favorite novels, Anil's Ghost, by Sri Lankan born Michael Ondaatje.

This memoir, Not Quite Paradise, begun while the author was a Fulbright Scholar in 2001 and finished after her second visit after the tsunami of 2004, was a gentle introduction to Sri Lankan culture and history. I particularly enjoyed the first half of the book, which was about her year-long teaching stint in 2001. Her writing in this section was fluid and descriptive, with funny details that made me feel connected with her experience. The second half of the book is more tense in language and reflects her desire to get at the impact of the tsunami and the experience of people in northern Sri Lanka. Although her experiences in this half were still interesting, it was less first person and more journalistic in tone.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars From a Sri Lankan American point of view July 21 2010
By Christina Thurairatnam - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Adele Barker and her teenage son Noah spent a year in Sri Lanka where Adele taught literature at the University of Peradeniya in Kandy. In Not Quite Paradise, Adele discusses everything from the food and customs to the people she meets, and the civil war. After the tsunami, Adele returns once again to Sri Lanka and describes the horrible devastation. She also travels north to war-torn Jaffna where she experiences the danger first hand. Not Quite Paradise combines interesting details about daily life, historical fact, and current events in a country ravaged by war for over twenty years.

Sri Lanka is a tiny island nation populated by two distinct ethnic groups: the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority. It was once a colony of Britain but after the British pulled out, tensions escalated culminating in the civil war between the LTTE, a faction of Tamil terrorists, and the Sinhalese government that began in 1983. Adele makes the country's history come alive and she talks about the conflict from an unbiased point of view. Her own personal experiences as an American adjusting to life in Sri Lanka add touches of humor to the narrative.

Not Quite Paradise was an intensely personal reading experience for me. My parents are originally from Sri Lanka. They immigrated in the mid 70s before I was born. If not for that choice, my sister and I would have grown up there in the middle of the war. The descriptions of war violence were very hard to read about. Although the war ended last year it will take a long time to rebuild and heal. People in Sri Lanka have suffered a lot but even among the sorrow they have hope. There is a lot of beauty and rich culture on the island. Adele is particularly interested in elephants and local birds and I enjoyed reading about the animals that she saw. She also met and made a lot of new friends both Sinhalese and Tamil and she shares their stories with us. I admired Adele's bravery in coming to a country so different to her and I like how open she was to new cultures and ways of belief. Her conversational writing style is mostly accessible and flows well. If you enjoy reading narrative nonfiction and learning about other cultures, you might enjoy Not Quite Paradise.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Adele Barker's Travels in Sri Lanka July 4 2012
By Black Plum - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Shortly after 9/11, Adele Barker and her son Noah moved to Sri Lanka for 18 months (she was teaching there.) They experienced the cultural and natural elements of this wonderful country. I really hope to travel to Sri Lanka some day. In any case, they experienced Sri Lanka's customs, cultures and various landscapes. However, in December 2004, when a terrible tsunami struck southeast Asia, Adele Barker decided that she had to go back. That's the not quite paradise part. Sri Lanka is such a beautiful country, but so many human tragedies have occurred there, including the long, bloody civil war and the uprisings before it. Barker chronicles how she hears locals tell about their experiences during the uprisings as well.

One thing I enjoyed about the book was that Barker not only included her own experiences living in Sri Lanka, but she also included some of its history (as you can see from the first few sentences.) I found the mix of history and personal experience quite interesting and effective.

*You can read all of my reviews at my blog, [...]*
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A rocky time on an unsteady island March 24 2012
By John L Murphy - Published on
A few weeks after 9/11, this professor of Russian lit lands in Sri Lanka. She and her teenaged son, who left Tucson after some unspecified dissatisfaction, face a year on a Fulbright. Barker, a steely and incisive observer of her surroundings in this land racked by war, reveals why it's "not quite paradise."

She takes the title of her account after the Victorian and early 20c British colonial narratives she scours. The "colonialist torpor" appears to overcome her too, in the tropics where two monsoon seasons swirl around her base near Kandy at a university where she tries to teach a few undergraduates. Her work load appears admirably light, affording her time to pursue "indolence" and sip endless cups of tea.

Two days gone and her house succumbs to the insects and rodents again. She opens a microwave and sees a film of ants, so black it reminds her of a poem by Sappho about rubble on a beach. She learns to deal with "election violence" as its own expected interruption, along with full-moon holidays and frequent breaks from work. "Normal murders" come to sound almost routine, as the civil war continues to the north, although later events will induce her to enter the war zone, if briefly. For now, in 2001-02, she tries to figure out with "ten words of Sinhalese" where to go next as she encounters the assault of birdsong in a land where others have had to learn the whistles of incoming bombs.

As she relates this all to us, her mood alters, and her own emotions appear to ruffle or smooth chapters in turn. This sudden downshifting into what her native hosts tell her translates as "nothing special happening" in our terms inspires her to recognize how she, as with her "white" predecessors, will always be on display, out of reach of the indigenous mindset, no matter how she labors to master Sinhalese or find a Tamil translator. As she looks at them, so they at her. Refusing to romanticize, what we're left with here, as she insists, is a harsher, more unsettled pair of stays on this unstable island.

However, globalization means change, and Sri Lanka meets its own challenge. Barker returns to the island the year after the tsunami kills 35,000 (the book jacket says 48,000) the day after Christmas, 2004. Eerily, as she was on a listserv, she in Arizona received e-mail warnings from the U.S. Embassy long before the islanders knew the impending disaster, as the Indian Ocean lacks the early warning system installed for the Pacific.

Part two of this book, therefore, finds her determined to traverse the island, to follow the coastal path of devastation. This reminded me of Emma Larkin's story about Burma after a massive 2008 cyclone, recounted in "Everything Is Broken" (see my review). Barker fills her report with similar sadness, and of attempts by international aid workers as well as diligent Sri Lankans to help ease suffering.

She hears from a survivor at a beach she had loved to visit, Mt. Lavinia, three years ago. "Those first few weeks, you could not, madam, have believed this ocean. There were pots and wooden spoons floating on the waves. It was a kitchen, but we couldn't eat the food it prepared." (qtd. 171) For half a year after, the islanders would not eat the fish caught, for fear of the diet that had sustained them.

Barker tells nearly nothing of her life prior to her visit; she aims instead to focus on Sri Lanka. (A list of suggested works and links is provided on Beacon Press's reader's guide for the book but it is lacking here, as is an index.) While researched and nuanced, as one supposes would be a work by a literature professor, it tends to minimize other sources in favor of Barker's own confrontations with them, and how she aligns them with the events witnessed and people interviewed.

A contrast with William McGowan's harrowing 1992 "All Man is Vile" (see my review) notes how McGowan strives for a war correspondent verve akin to Ryszard Kapuscinski crossed with a preference for the exotic oddity as with Bruce Chatwin. For Barker, who writes after a dozen years more of the war have ground on, you find out far less about the reasons for the war, and you feel less of its savagery, but you learn to listen as she does to the conversations of the locals, more hesitantly.

She avoids the pitfalls of a memoir that rattles on about the writer's own shortcomings, even if the context for the war and the chaos it creates is under-explained. This tone, rather detached, reflects how she learned about the events as they were told (or not told, just as often) to her as a resident--not a tourist, but not an expatriate. Yet, as other reviewers on Amazon agree, you don't learn what drives her away from Arizona to of all places Sri Lanka. Her son's difficulties are often muffled. She appears about to reveal more about her motives, then she retreats. That liminal status never leaves her.

She tries to teach the students in Jaffna about Dostoevsky, Dickinson, and Woolf (whose husband had lived as a colonial in Sri Lanka and had written about his stint). But the civil war follows her north, and she must flee. In the end, after her two sojourns, she asks the same questionf her students and neighbors and hosts as she had years before: "were they, I wondered, any the less on display for me than I was for them?" (291)
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