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Not Quite Paradise: An American Sojourn in Sri Lanka Hardcover – Jan 1 2010
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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.
Top Customer Reviews
_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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
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.
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.
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, [...]*
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