Refugee child at the Hungarian/Serbian border September 2015 – Image courtesy of Fedja Grulovic
It seems that everywhere we turn now, we are seeing heartbreaking stories of refugees attempting to escape conflict and rebuild their lives somewhere else. From those who make the desperate crossing from Africa and the Middle East across the Mediterranean to others being kept in island detention centers by the Australian government, it is truly a tragedy to see people’s lives reduced to such circumstances through no fault of their own.
Recently, I found myself in a passionate debate with people who did not seem to care. Perhaps they were just frightened, or overwhelmed – but too many people I speak to appear to have lost their compassion when discussing ‘what is to be done’ about the millions of people who are seeking a place of safety.
I don’t have the answers. I’m not sure anybody has. But I do know that this is one planet, with many peoples, all who have the right to live in peace and security. I also know that the fact that I don’t have to try and find somewhere safe with my children after my home and livelihood has been destroyed by conflict is not because I am a better person than anyone else, but because I’m outrageously lucky. That’s all. I was not chosen. So, I will ALWAYS be grateful to whatever higher being it is that allowed me to be born in one of the lucky countries and remember that ‘There but for the grace of God go I’.
But I often wonder why I appear to have more empathy for refugees and asylum seekers than others in my extended family and even some of my friends. And I also wonder why others can appear to be so heartless in their condemnation of those seeking a new life.
And I wonder if it is to do with books.
I have read thousands of books in my lifetime – each and every one of them offering me an opportunity to live, for a short time, the life of another person. Sometimes that may have meant finding myself in the head of a 16-year old cheerleader at Sweet Valley High, but at other times it has found me experiencing the fear and hopelessness of a stubborn, middle-aged Kurdish man living in a refugee camp in Turkey after an earthquake has destroyed his home.
When you read novels, you realise the world is not black and white. There are characters whose motivation you don’t really understand, but because you are inside their heads, you are forced to try, flexing those empathy muscles, again and again. Every book you read makes you wonder what you would do if you were in that person’s situation. That’s just how it works.
When you read fiction about the Holocaust, you completely identify with those in the camps. When you read a novel like Every Man Dies Alone, you appreciate that the German people were also victims. Exodus fills you with the passion of the birth of modern-day Israel, while Mornings in Jenin puts you in the shoes of the Palestinians. People and history are complicated. Novels help you make sense of it.
And there are several studies which appear to back this up.
The Guardian – Literary fiction improves empathy
Scientific American – Novel Finding:Reading literary fictions improves empathy
The Guardian – Reading fiction improves empathy, study finds
Edutopia – How reading literature cultivates empathy
Even Barack Obama puts his ‘good citizenship’ down to the empathy he has gained from reading novels.
Here are some of the novels I have read which have given me an appreciation for those who have dealt with crisis and conflict. Each and every one of them helps to build that empathy I believe is so important when trying to understand the lives of those you see in the news. There are, of course, many more, but these are some of the ones which have most affected me and I highly recommend each of them…
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Set during Nigeria’s civil war of the 1960s (recently chosen as the best book out of a decade of the women’s prize for fiction winners)
A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam – One family during the civil war which sees the birth of Bangladesh.
Gardens of Water by Alan Drew – A Kurdish family become refugees after 17,000 people are killed in Turkey’s 1999 earthquake.
Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa – The members of a Palestinian family try to rebuild their lives after they are forced off their land in 1948.
Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway – People try to go about their normal lives as their city comes under fire from snipers.
Anything by Khaled Hosseini! – Hosseini’s novels of Afghanistan such as The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns give an insight to life in that country through different eras and conflicts.
But while I am forever grateful for what I can learn from fiction, can you imagine what it would be like if you were in a refugee camp where you had no exposure to books, culture or education, year after year after year? That’s right, it’s not unusual for refugees to spend several years (sometimes decades) in camps.
Thankfully there is a fabulous organisation which is trying to address the fact that so many kids in refugee situations have no books or education. This is a brilliant idea – have a look at this video. It can explain it much better than I can.
Here are some of the things inside the Ideas Box…
- Paper books
- E-readers with thousands of books
- Education from the Khan Academy
- Other education apps
- Handheld cameras
- Board games
- Arts and crafts materials
According to the website, refugees spend an average of 17 years in a refugee camp – this is a tool to help them rebuild themselves when they are finally able to emerge.
‘The dream is all the more important when we have lost everything…This is the first and last thing we should give to people who have lost everything.’ – Designer Philippe Starck (who helped create The Ideas Box)
If you are looking for some way of supporting refugee children, you could do worse that donate to, or sponsor an Ideas Box yourself. Perhaps it will go to the children who will one day write the novels that help us truly understand the victims of this current refugee crisis.
Amazingly, despite two trips to Venice in my lifetime, I have never ridden in a gondola. This is something I will have to remedy after my latest read.
Laura Morelli’s The Gondola Maker takes us to 16th century Venice and the world of its craftsmen and water workers. Luca Vianello, who comes from a family of gondola makers, is forced to flee his home after a family quarrel and accident, and soon finds himself working as a boatman for a painter. Luca becomes entranced by a woman he sees in one of his master’s paintings, and while she is well out of his class, tries to find ways to meet her.
Morelli obviously has a great deal of knowledge about this time in Venice and the daily life of artisans like Luca. She reveals fascinating detail about the process of gondola making, as well as other crafts, while giving us a window into Venetian life; especially that of the often unscrupulous boatmen!
While the novel starts in a (literal) blaze when a gondola is deliberately set on fire to punish a boatman who has earned the disapproval of the city’s rulers, I found the following few chapters slower than I would have liked. Morelli becomes a little bogged down in the detail and not much happens until Chapter 5. But if you can persevere past this point, you will be part of a gently flowing story that takes us from teeming ferry stations filled with crates of chickens, to the palaces of the wealthy, and of course the canals – those highways upon which the boatmen ply their trade.
Venice is a popular location for many fiction writers, and there is much we can learn about the city from its novels. So let’s take a look at what parts of Venice we can explore with The Gondola Maker by our side.
Base yourself in Cannaregio
“The oarmaker’s shop sits on a high embankment above the Sacca della Misericordia, the basin on the north side of Cannaregio, which affords an expansive view onto the canal and beyond to the island of Murano… These apprentices have the pleasure of watching boats pass while they work, and even glimpse naval ships in the distance headed to Corfu and Cyprus.” (Loc 387)
Luca’s family squero – or boatyard – is in Cannaregio, the most northern of Venice’s six historic districts. Traditionally a working class and manufacturing area, today, it maintains its working-class nature and is a welcome respite from the more tourist-driven areas of the city. Many feel Cannaregio is one of Venice’s ‘hidden gems’, allowing visitors to see how ordinary Venetians live, while still providing bars and restaurants aplenty. And in less than half an hour, you’ll be able to walk to San Marco. These comments on Trip Advisor are typical of those who say they have discovered the “real Venice”.
“A walk through Cannaregio enables visitors to see and sense another aspect of Venice, away from the the tourist trail. The whole atmosphere of the area is tranquil and seemingly locked away in its own world.”
“Cannaregio as a whole has an authentic Venetian atmosphere and the canals are “living” waterways, bustling with commercial traffic all day long. At night it is quieter but with some great restaurants and a peaceful feel to the evenings.”
“Had an apartment for 6 nights in Cannaregio, right on a quiet canal. Wonderful area, quiet, with great restaurants and cafes, beautiful churches, and no cruise ship crowds.”
And this article in the Guardian is glowing with praise for Cannaregio.
You can even stay in a former squero…
“In spite of its renown, the Squero Vianello, our family boatyard, is little more than a haphazard conglomeration of buildings surrounding a boat ramp. Its three structures – the workshop, the storehouse, and our home – have been standing longer than anyone remembers.” (Loc 237)
Venice Squero – Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
To really put you in The Gondola Maker mood, why not stay in a former squero when you are in Venice. Allo Squero is a bed and breakfast in Cannaregio, with a garden which was a former shipyard. There’s no reason not to pretend you are staying in Luca’s family squero. We’re allowed those sorts of flights of fancy at Packabook!
Allo Squero gets some great reviews.
Wander along the Misericordia
“I decide to travel the quayside of the Misericordia canal, observing the variety of boats docked there as I walk: rowboats covered with tarps, several plainly outfitted gondolas, and many rafts.” (Loc 457)”
The Fondamenta Misericordia, is the street running alongside the Misericordia canal, and it’s a fabulous spot for small restaurants and bars as well as carpenters, boat repairers and sculptors.
A favourite restaurant for many is the Trattoria Misericordia, especially if you are a lover of seafood. Take a seat, enjoy the meal, watch the traffic on the canal and think back to Luca’s own walk along this little piece of Venice.
Admire the ceiling in the The Church of Sant’Alvise
“I know I am close when I reach the church of Sant’Alvise and begin to hear the ringing sound of hammering on metal. Members of the blacksmith’s guild, including the family of Annalisa Bonfante, cluster in the streets surrounding the squat old church.” (Loc 421)
This is the church near where Luca’s betrothed, Annalisa, lives with her family and their blacksmith foundry. And it may be a “squat old church” (even in Luca’s time), but it has a ceiling that attracts people from all over the world as well as three paintings by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo a prolific, and highly successful 18th century painter and craftsman.
Visit the site of the world’s first Jewish ghetto
“I scan the room for someone wearing the kind of red hat that Jews are required by law to wear in order to identify themselves, but I do not see one. I wonder why there is a Jew out at this hour at all and can only guess that his status must be special enough to allow him dispensation from the curfew that requires Jews to be in their homes inside the ghetto after nightfall. I imagine their dark eyes peering out from behind iron gates in their neighborhood in Cannaregio, not far from where I was born.” (Loc 2238)
Like so many other places in Europe at the time, Jews in Venice suffered from anti-semitism which saw their movements, work and dress regulated. In 1516 the rulers of Venice decided to confine Jews to a particular area, creating the world’s first ghetto. Residents were only allowed to leave the ghetto during the day, and were locked in at night. Today the ghetto remains a centre of Jewish culture, education and worship.
It is well worth a visit to the Museo Ebraico where you can buy a ticket for a guided tour of three of the five synagogues (very difficult to find on your own), the best way to fully understand the history of this tiny and unique part of Venice. After the tour, wander around the antique shops, bakeries and cafes and enjoy one of the most tranquil areas of the city.
Read more about what visitors think here.
But what about the gondolas?
“Beyond, a cluster of mooring posts painted with red and black spirals stands just off the ramp in the water, marking the entrance to the squero. In the summer, we take frequent leave of our work to walk down the ramp and splash our faces with cool canal water.” (Loc 270)
So far we have not moved from Cannaregio, there is so much to see there. But we will have to move out of this district to Dorsoduro if we are going to find the two remaining working squeri in central Venice where you can see gondola makers at work.
Squero San Trovaso – While there are no formal tours of this squero, the gondola makers don’t mind you watching them work from across the canal, and it seems lots of people like to take this opportunity. If you have a group of 25 or more, then you might be able to arrange a visit, but the owners tell me it is not always possible.
You could also try Oltrex tours which is based in the Hotel Daniele just off Piazza San Marco. They apparently do a two-hour tour to a gondola workshop, though it’s not clear which one.
Like so many novels, The Gondola Maker gives us an insight into a world very different from our own AND provides some great clues to encourage us to visit parts of a city we might otherwise ignore. The plot is not complex or overly-compelling, but the gentle storyline combined with the wealth of detail and atmosphere makes this a worthy read for anyone considering a trip to Venice in the future – it will most certainly add to your experience there.
And I’m now actually pleased I have not yet ridden in a gondola – because when I do, I will be taking a lot more notice of the craft involved than I would have done before coming across this book. Have a read, and I’m sure you will do the same.
P.S. I received a complimentary copy of The Gondola Maker from iRead Book Tours in exchange for an honest opinion of the book. This review is part of a Book Tour around several blogs, so I highly recommend you read the views of other bloggers by following the tour schedule here – this gives you a great all-round view of the novel.
If you are still hankering for more books set in Italy, you’ll find many more to choose from here!
I am in the process of doing something quite a bit scary, and wanted to share it with you.
I have been working on this for what feels like years now, but have only recently taken the concrete steps to make it happen – and that is to develop a Packabook iPad App.
My dream is, that when you are out and about with your iPad, you can find the locations near to you that are featured in great novels. Or if you are heading to Paris, and you are staying in a particular area, you can choose some novels right near where you are staying. Eventually, the app will be a travel app as much as a book app, in that it will be recommending plenty of things for you to do in that area as well.
But it’s early days.
First I wanted to share with you a couple of screen shots of the design. I have spent FOREVER working on this, as I tried to come up with something that reflects the glamor of travel’s glory days – which in my head is somewhere around the 1940s. This was when people (with money!) had beautiful luggage, and engaged in long train or ship journeys. They spent time writing in their travel journals or conversing with their fellow passengers over gins and tonic, and could afford to travel for months on end. Travel these days is often about cramming as much as you can into carry-on bags, hours and hours at airport security, and paying for over-priced food on budget airlines. But – there’s no reason why we shouldn’t imagine what life was like in years gone by. And that’s what I’m hoping the design of this app will conjure up for you.
It’s very un-Apple like – especially as Apple has now moved to flat, clean lines for apps – but so be it. The Packabook App is for those who appreciate a different kind of life.
See what you think!
Right now the very basic, free version of the app is with the developer. This is the bit that scares me, because I really don’t know what those guys do. I pay them some money and they say they can make my app. I can only cross my fingers and hope I’ve managed to explain to them what I want to achieve. I’m not sure how long it will take or even whether Apple will accept me into the App Store – it is a leap of faith. And then of course, maybe it will just disappear into the app black hole where something like one million apps already live. How will people find my brave little adventurer?
I will keep you updated…and I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments,
Just a quick note to thank you for all your votes on which shelves I should be building next at the Packabook Store.
Your choices have all been counted and I can now inform you of our upcoming destinations.
I hereby give you the latest league table for our next country!
I’m loving seeing such a wide variety of countries on the list, but this of course makes it harder for a single place to edge ahead. In fact, we had a tie between Myanmar/Burma and Israel and the Palestinian Territories — two destinations that have had to go in the Nepalese hat for a draw before.
And here they go again….
This time Myanmar (or Burma – I’ll let you read this explanation at the BBC as to why there are two different names) makes it through. I am really looking forward to this one, as is one of our keenest Packabookers, Mona. Mona has made at least one trip to Myanmar, though I think it might be two, and I’m hoping she’ll be offering us some fabulous reading suggestions…
Moving on to U.S. states… here’s the table!
As you can see we have an overwhelming winner for this one, so it’s time to pack those bags for Florida. A big thank you to Linda and Mandy for your votes this time round and to Kelly and Marla from a previous round.
And a clear winner too for our U.K. county…
It seems you are hankering for a city-break this time, with London narrowly defeating Kent and Devon. Choosing novels set in London is going to be an endless delight, as I suspect new books are being published in my home city faster than I can add them – so while I won’t be offering you every single London-set novel out there, I can guarantee a fabulous selection…
Right – loads of work to do to get started…
Apologies if you didn’t get your choices this time, but your votes stay on the table for the next round, so they will have a head start then.
See you soon…
With the Argentina, Arizona and Dorset bookshelves now safely constructed in the Packabook Book Store, it’s time to turn our attention to the next country, U.S. state and English county you’d like me to focus on.
As usual, I’d love you to give me your votes for each in the comments below, on the Packabook Facebook page or via email to firstname.lastname@example.org – I will add your selections to our previous tally and declare a winner for each category.
Don’t forget – you have three votes 1) Country 2) U.S. state and 3) English county – you could choose somewhere that’s currently in the news, your next holiday destination or just somewhere that you have never read a book about before. It’s up to you!
You can vote for places you have put a bid in for before, or you can choose new ones… they will all be added to the previous tally. The list of places to choose from is below. Voting closes on Sunday September 1st and I will announce the winners soon after.
Which ones will you go for? I can’t wait to see where you are sending me next!
Burkina Faso (Burkina, Upper Volta)
Central Africa Republic
DR Congo (Congo-Kinshasa, Belgian Congo, Zaire)
Guinea (French Guinea, Gineau-Conakry)
Isle of Man
Israel & the Palestinian Territories
Ivory Coast (Côte d’Ivoire)
Palau (Pelew, Belau)
Papua New Guinea
São Tomé and Príncipe
Sudan (North Sudan)
Suriname (Dutch Guiana)
Swaziland (Ngwane, Swatini)
Trinidad and Tobago
Turks and Caicos Islands
Tuvalu (Ellice Islands)
American States + Washington D.C.
English Counties – with some adaption for practical purposes, making places easier to find for those from other countries!
Isle of White
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