Two Towns reading project delves into Myanmar

The ancient temples of Bagan. (Courtesy of Linda Fox)The ancient temples of Bagan. (Courtesy of Linda Fox)
The ancient temples of Bagan. (Courtesy of Linda Fox)

The ancient temples of Bagan. (Courtesy of Linda Fox)

BY Molly Congdon
Gazette Reporter
CLIFTON PARK — “The old man’s eyes struck me first. They rested deep in their sockets, and he seemed unable to take them off me. Granted, everyone in the teahouse was staring at me more or less unabashedly, but he was the most brazen. As if I were some exotic creature he’s never seen before.”
This is the first paragraph from this year’s book chosen for Two Towns-One Book: Clifton Park & Halfmoon Read, a program of the Friends of the Library, which is a non-profit organization that supports the Clifton Park-Halfmoon Public Library.
“The Art of Hearing Heartbeats,” German native Jan-Philipp Sendker’s first novel, is an inspirational love story set in Burma, which is now called the Republic of the Union of Myanmar.
The TTOB program started about four years ago, modeled after nearby programs such as Schenectady County One Book and Saratoga Reads. “It was created to bring people and our community together to share reading and discussing a common book,” Chairwoman Linda Conklin said. “Our choices inspire rich discussion and community activities and encourage younger readers to participate through companion books and related activities.”
The first step in selecting the book for a particular year begins with nominations; usually there are a total of 200 to 300. Then, a review process whittles the field to five books, dubbed the contenders. Finally, the winning book is chosen through a popular vote in the community.
When a victor is proclaimed in November, activities are planned to correspond with the reading of that book.
Travelogue of a journey
The kickoff event for “The Art of Hearing Heartbeats,” which took place Sunday, Jan. 11, included a special presentation by Linda Fox, a Clifton Park resident who traveled to Burma in October. She engaged the 80 to 100 people in attendance with a travelogue of her journey, which was depicted through several slides and photographs. She described the people, their devout Buddhism and their industrious nature, transporting listeners into an unfamiliar culture.
“Burma has a thing that is known as the tourist triangle; there are areas where you can go and areas that you can’t go,” Fox said. “So we stuck to the tourist triangle because we didn’t want to go anywhere that was unsafe.”
One of the first structures that she saw was the 2,500-year-old Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the most impressive and sacred Buddhist sites. It is said to enshrine actual strands of Buddha’s hair as well as many other holy relics.
It is a country that places great value in religion. “We were in a small village where we saw a Buddhist initiation ceremony, which is comparable to First Communion where the children get all dressed up and then become initiated in the Buddhist religion by going into the monastery for a week,” Fox said. “They live there for that time and begin their journey of becoming monks.”
The mostly lush green countryside is full of diligent workers who spend their days laboring within lacquer factories painting bowls and trays, selling flowers and candles on the street to people on their way to worship at the temple and hand sewing and stitching tapestries.
“We went to a gold-production facility where they were pounding the gold super-thin. People buy it in small, inch-sized square slices, and when they go to worship they put it on the Buddha,” Fox said. “There was a young boy, he was working so hard and they said that he will pound that gold for several hours.”
Despite the country’s more beautiful aspects, there is a lot of room for improvements to be made with hygiene. “What struck me most about the country is the difficulty they have getting access to fresh water,” Fox said. “A lot of the small villages don’t have fresh water; they use the water out of the river, which is highly polluted, and they use it for everything. They bathe their children, they wash their clothes, cook their food with this water that most Americans wouldn’t consider sanitary enough to swim.”
Families are able to participate in the reading program together, but in dissimilar ways. Children can be part of the Kids Read Too! program, in which they read companion books to coincide with the overriding themes of the book selected for adults. This year the books are “The Black Book of Colors” and “The Spitefire — Reaching Helen Keller.”
“My main character, who is a young boy in Burma, becomes blind in ‘The Art of Hearing Heartbeats,’ ” Conklin said. “So that’s one of the focuses of the children’s books. In ‘The Black Book of Colors’ the pages are all black and you have to feel the pictures; they are all indentations.”
Keep your eyes peeled for the TTOB table at Clifton Park Center during WinterFest on Feb. 7.