Monday, June 7, 2010

Everything Is Broken by Emma Larkin

Everything Is Broken: A Tale of Catastrophe in Burma by Emma Larkin
288 pages
Published April 2010 by Penguin Group
Source: the publisher and TLC Book Tours

On May 2, 2008, an unprecedented tropical cyclone hit the Irrawaddy Delta in Burma. The official death toll was over 138,000 dead and missing with destruction of the land too great to comprehend. As news of the disaster and its scale began to be known in the days following the cyclone, the military regime ruling Burma took the unbelievable stand that they would not allow any kind of foreign aid to enter the country. Furthermore, they themselves took almost no steps to provide aid to the survivors. Hundreds of thousands of their people had no drinking water, food or shelter.

The author had made many trips into Burma in previous years doing research for anther book and immediately wanted to get into Burma to see what was happening and what she could do. Coming into the country as a tourist, Larkin was able to find lodging in a house in Rangoon and through her network of friends began to be able to piece together the story of what had happened in the country since the storm.

The book is written in three parts. The first is "Skyful of Lies" and chronicles the specific details of what was done by the government and the various aid groups. Despite the horrific details, this part really dragged for me. After the initial shock of reading about the bodies of the dead left wherever the storm had left them, the callousness of the government and the ineffectiveness of the aid groups in coordinating efforts, I began to feel like I was reading the same thing over and over again. That may have been Larkin's intention--to drive home her point. But I came close to giving up on this one.

Then I got to the second part, "No Bad News For The King," and my interest picked back up. Larkin takes the reader through the history of the leadership in Burma, including the period of time it was a British colony and the history of Burma's current ruling general. Burma is a Buddhist country and Larkin delves into that aspect of the country and the government's handling of the monks, as well. I found this much more interesting and, despite the fact that the actions of the government were clearly wrong, it became obvious that they were almost inevitable given the past.

It's in the third part, "Everything Is Broken," that Larkin really sucks the reader in. As she is finally able to venture out into the delta, Larkin begins to collect stories of the survivors and really gives the reader a sense of the country and what had happened to it.

"Seen from above, the Irrawaddy Delta is a patchwork of varied shades of green. There are swaths of velvety moss green and areas of pale jade, a color so translucent it is hardly green at all. The latticework of waterways that draw random patterns through this greenery is laid with tangled carpets of water hyacinth and spill over into the spiky neon-green expanse of paddy fields. Villages of thatch houses are nestled with the curves of larger rivers, partially hidden beneath groves of palm trees. The entire landscape seems to undulate softly, rippling as if the surface of a pond were being disturbed by a light breeze, and it is impossible to distinguish land from water; seen from above, the delta seems to be both land and water."

Doesn't that sound lovely? It is so vivid, I could clearly imagine what life in that land must have been like before May 2, 2008. But Larkin goes on to say,

"Even three months on, the path of destruction carved by Cyclone Nargis is still clearly marked. The verdant green gives way to brown, and the delta's fertile lushness is replaced by a dying landscape. In the cyclone zone, the waterways course sickly gray and dark, brackish water seeps across the paddy fields and plantations. There are no more cozy clusters of huts and palm trees, only the remnants of villages - the hint of a dirt road beneath stagnant floodwater, the tilted skeleton of a rice warehouse that has no walls or roof; slight indentations where homes once stood."

What makes all of this so sad is knowing that there was help in the area almost immediately after the cyclone hit--several countries had ships just off the shore within days ready to provide manpower and machinery; the U.S. had a cargo plane ready to fly in with food aid almost within hours and many other countries had planes and people ready with aid and expertise. So many of the dead might have survived, so much of the suffering might have been eased.

As we deal with the crisis in the Gulf of Mexico, and people question whether or not the government is doing enough, this book really drives home how fortunate we are to have a government that is willing to do anything and allows the media to report on the story. It's truly a miracle that Larkin was able to get this story out to us.

For other opinions about this book, check out the rest of the stops on the tour:

Tuesday, May 18th: Word Lily
Wednesday, May 19th: Beastmomma
Wednesday, May 26th: The Little Reader
Thursday, May 27th: Heart 2 Heart
Monday, May 31st: Café of Dreams
Wednesday, June 2th: Books, Movies, and Chinese Food
Thursday, June 3rd: Book Addiction
Wednesday, June 9th: Caribousmom
Thursday, June 10th: Sophisticated Dorkiness
Thanks to Trish and TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour and to those who encouraged me to keep reading when I talked about giving up on this one. I'm so glad I didn't.


  1. This book reminds me a little bit of Not Quite Paradise, which focused a lot on the devastation of Sri Lanka after a massive tsunami. The reason I think it's similar is because it sounds like the Sri Lankan government acted a lot the government in Burma, ignoring it's citizens that needed help and in it's failure to provide even clean drinking water. It's very sad. I think this sounds like a really interesting book. I am going to have to check this one out. Thanks!

  2. How did you manage to stay with it for the part you liked best? I have a hard time if the first part doesn't catch me, unless someone I know rates it highly. I'm reading An American Wife right now and I liked that right from the get-go. On the other hand I had no interest at all in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

  3. It really does put the Oil Spill in the Gulf in perspective, doesn't it? I was just watching coverage on it a couple of hours ago and it just makes me so mad that this was even allowed to happen (they knew the pipes were old, etc.).

    But then you hear about a place like Burma where there was no one helping- not foreign aid and not their own government- and you feel lucky that we even know what is going on in the first place in the Gulf. That we have the freedom to boycott BP if we want.

    I want to know more about Burma. Thanks for the great review.

  4. This tour is convincing me to read this book! I just have to figure out when...

  5. This is such a tragic story. Angry making as well as sad. I definitely have to look for this one. Thanks for your great review, Lissa.

  6. I really like your last paragraph, that's such a good point I hadn't even thought of. I didn't love this book as much as you, but still thought it was good -- review up tomorrow!

  7. I'm glad that you stuck with this even though the beginning dragged - it sounds like it was a very worthwhile read in the end. :)