Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Memoirs of a Middle-aged Hummingbird

Memoirs of a Middle-aged Hummingbird by Suellen Zima
(iUniverse / 0-595-39460-4 / June 2006 / 436 pages / $27.95)

Reviewed by Celia Hayes for iUBR

In 1983 a middle-aged divorced social worker emigrated to Israel, and began a twenty-year eccentric odyssey of travel and work; first in Israel, and then into the Far East – China mostly, with frequent ventures into Bali, South Korea, Indonesia, New Zealand and Australia. She taught English, mostly – and traveled widely to all sorts of obscure corners, usually on the economy and accompanied by an assortment of friends. Throughout all this, she kept a diary and wrote letters to her family, telling them of the people and the cultures she met, and of her mostly affectionate but occasionally complicated reactions to them. She made close and dear friends among her co-workers and her students in Israel and China; so close and so dear that she regards and writes of many of them as her children, and their children as her grandchildren… and yet, as she admitted and described herself as a hummingbird; “we plant our feet firmly in mid-air, hover, drink deeply and then flit away…if someone tries to hold us, we will die. But we can fly backwards as well as forwards at will.” And so, during two tumultuous decades, she hovered in mid-air, sucking up the nectar of a particular place; never staying long enough to be firmly, finally and exclusively committed to any of them, but loving them all and being tormented by various catastrophic events which changed them and affected her friends.

This book is described as a memoir, but it is not quite that: it is her diary, letters to family, and as such, it would have value to anyone writing a social history of any of the places where Ms. Zima lit down for a brief interlude. She has a discerning eye and a gift for describing the passing scene: funky small apartments, the beauty (or lack of same) in places as far apart as Iceland and Bali, the taste in the air, oddities in methods of transportation, and interesting people such as the toothless woman working her away around the far corners of the world as a ship’s engineer. There are also heartbreaking accounts of the Israeli boarding-school director who ‘disappeared’ her pet dog, of accompanying a Chinese friend to an abortion clinic, and of the experience of walking into an American mall or grocery store after a long time living in a foreign country with rather more limited options available to the shopper and being totally freaked by the sheer lavish variety of goods and choices available. There is a wealth of observations and experiences in this book, as well as some curious omissions, notably an entry mentioning her sons’ presumably terminal illness, about which there is never another word. Since much of it is a personal diary, these entries are a day-to-day notation of experiences, of names and places with no need for explanation or background, but some of those cry out for expansion, or at least a fuller explanation. A number of long essays sprinkled in among the comparatively terse diary entries hint at the memoir that this book could have been, with a little editing of some parts and a disciplined expansion of others; something along the lines of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. Very little in this account explains why the author embarked upon this odyssey, the qualifications and other qualities she possessed which enabled her to travel so far a-field. As a memoir it is disconcertingly opaque in some aspects, while being perfectly transparent concerning others, especially the ways in which China has changed and developed over the last thirty years, and in one American woman’s reaction to those changes.
See Also: Suellen Zima's Website
Celia's Review at Blogger News Network

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