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Everything is Broken

From TLC book tours:

On May 2, 2008, an enormous tropical cyclone made landfall in Burma, wreaking untold havoc, and leaving an official toll of 138,300 dead and missing. In the days that followed, the sheer scale of the disaster became apparent as information began to seep out from the hard-hit delta area. But the Burmese regime, in an unfathomable decision of near-genocidal proportions, provided little relief and blocked international aid from entering the country. Hundreds of thousands of Burmese citizens lacked food, drinking water, and basic shelter, but the xenophobic generals who rule the country refused emergency help.

Emma Larkin, who has been traveling to and secretly reporting on Burma for years, managed to arrange for a tourist visa in those frenzied days and arrived hoping to help. It was impossible for anyone to gauge just how much devastation the cyclone had left in its wake; by all accounts, including the regime’s, it was a catastrophe of epic proportions. In Everything is Broken: A Tale of Catastrophe in Burma (The Penguin Press; May 3, 2010; $35.95), Larkin chronicles the chaotic days and months that followed the storm, revealing the secretive politics of Burma’s military dictatorship, and the bizarre combination of vicious military force, religion, and mysticism that defined its unthinkable response to this horrific event.

Pages: 288 (Hardcover) The Penguin Press HC is the publisher

Rating: 8 out of 10

Source: Received from TLC book tours

Even though I knew it was going to be an intense emotional journey, I was excited and curious to read Everything Is Broken: A Tale of Catastrophe in Burma by Emma Larkin  The book provided a wealth of information from the history of the current regime to insight into Buddhist beliefs and cultural practices.  I was especially taken with the central role monks played in society and how harming the monks was one of the practices that brought people out to protest the government. As a result of the regime's harm to the monks, the monks decided to overturn the alms which The description of "overturning the alms" was especially powerful.  When the government failed to apologize for an assault against monks, the monks declared a boycott on accepting alms from the soldiers and their families.  This denies soldiers and their families the chance to make merit which is a central part of religious practice in the community.

My favorite parts of the book were when mythic tales were interwoven with the dark story.  For example, I really enjoyed reading about the stories of the people who clung to animals during the storm.  I was a little freaked out with the image of someone clinging to a snake or a python to ride out the storm, but I was also moved and amazed at how something that induces fear transforms into a life line.

The book contained many stories of loss and the struggles people went through to hang onto what they treasured.  One story of a mother who could not carry her baby broke my heart. She wrapped her child in a cloth and then held the cloth with her teeth during the entire storm.  The author heard lots of stories of family members who were dead or missing.  Losing clothing was also a big theme. Several of the stories described how people lost their clothing which was a sign of shame.  I was especially moved with the description of a woman who refused to come down from a tree until nightfall because she was naked.  

Even with all the loss and destruction, people were trying to figure out how to start over.  This part of the book was especially sad to me.  With the misinformation and restriction on aid, many people had little resources with which to start over.  At several points, the author provides lists to illustrate the large mismatch between what was received and what was needed. In a political environment when people could be thrown into jail for sharing information outside the country, it because an act of defiance to simply state "This is what we need."

Throughout the book, I found myself comparing the government response in Burma to the responses of governments to hurricane Katrina in the United States and the tsunami in Southeast Asia.  Even though the responses could have been better, the relative transparency of relief efforts and getting information out made it easier for the international community to respond to the disaster.

Finally, I was intrigued by the author's practice of writing the book.  She used a lot of first hand sources and often was operating under the radar.  I noticed that the author wrote using a pseudonym.  I found myself curious about what motivated her to take the risk to write the book, how she became interested in Burma, what she does when she is not writing books, and what she is doing now.

For other scheduled tour stops, please visit the TLC website.

In addition to being a tour stop, I am using this book for the following challenges:

  • Orbis Terrarum: The author was born in Asia and lives in Thailand. I am counting the book as coming from Thailand.
  • World Party Reading Challenge: The book takes place in Burma which is under military dictatorship. It fulfills the communist country requirement.
  • Global Reading Challenge: The book took place in Burma. Even though I already finished the continent of Asia, I am counting it as a "bonus read."

Posted on Wednesday, May 19, 2010 at 8:55AM by Registered Commenter[beastmomma] in | Comments10 Comments

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Reader Comments (10)

sounds like a good read. i'll have to add it to my goodreads list!

on another note, i once had to participate in a high school debate opposing economic sanctions in burma. i had no idea what i was talking about.
May 19, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterthe cleaner
Wow, I didn't know you were participating in so many book challenges!

Great review!
May 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterVictoria
Thanks for the review. I can't believe I don't remember this cyclone -- it's a shame that the outside world could have helped the burmese people and their own government didn't want it!
May 20, 2010 | Unregistered Commenteranshu
Wow! This book sounds intense and touches on so many different aspects - the human story, the political story, and more. Enjoyed your review. It definitely makes me want to read the book...soon!
May 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterR.
Wow, this book sounds intense. It would be a great read for me for my Global challenge and for the fact that I know very little about this region, its politics and religion. THANK YOU. You do read such a great diverse selection and always seem to be important topics. The author sounds extremely brave. Great review!
May 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCare
Cleaner: If I had to participate in a debate about the economic sanctions in Burma, I would not have done very well either.
Victoria: I have become a bit of a challenge junkie. I am not sure if I am going to finish the books by the deadline, but it is fun to try.
Anshu: I did not remember the cyclone either. It is a shame that so much need went unmet because no information was shared.
R: The book is incredibly intense. With your international travel, it would be interesting to get your perspective.
Care: The author is brave and the book would be good for fulfilling different challenges. Thanks for the compliment on my reading!
May 20, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterbeastmomma
I've just started reading this book. The non-reaction of the Burmese government is unbelievable. I enjoyed your review and am eager to read more about this tragedy.
May 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne
Suzanne: The Burmese government is an unbelievable character. I hope that you enjoy the rest of the intense book. Thanks for stopping by!
May 22, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterbeastmomma
Wow! You're not kidding when you say it was a heavy book. Just reading your review is heartbreaking, but this is obviously a story that needed to be told. Thanks for being on this tour!
May 23, 2010 | Unregistered Commentertrish
Trish: Yes, the story needed to be told and I am glad that the book is out there! Thank you so much for including me in the tour; reading this book was an important educational experience for me.
May 24, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterbeastmomma

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