Thursday, January 7, 2010

Book Review - Tell Them I Didn't Cry: A Young Journalist's Story of Joy, Loss, and Survival in Iraq by Jackie Spinner with Jenny Spinner


Title:Tell Them I Didn't Cry: A Young Journalist's Story of Joy, Loss, and Survival in Iraq
Author: Jackie Spinner with Jenny Spinner
Year: 2007
Page: 265 (with 8 pages of black and white photos)
Genre: Non-Fiction: Memoir, War

New to me author? Yes
Read this author again? No
Tearjerker? No
Where did it take place? Iraq
FTC Disclosure: Borrowed from the library

Brief Summary - from Publishers Weekly on
Jackie Spinner, a Washington Post staff writer, left the steady analytics of financial reporting for the terror-laden beat of Iraq in May 2004. In this memoir, she writes in simple yet descriptive language about the daily challenges and rewards of life in a war zone. Over the course of nine months, she carves her niche at the Baghdad bureau as den mother and human-interest reporter. She objectively reports on the struggles and aspirations of everyday Iraqis, the triumphs and failures of the military and the violence that traps her indoors most of the time—but the heart of this book is in her personal investment in the bureau's Iraqi staff. Spinner cooks weekly dinners for them, plays soccer in the hallways with them and teaches them English. Each chapter ends with reflections written by Jenny, her twin back home, an English professor, who belies her fears with chipper encouragement and dreads toy deliveries to her son because Jackie always orders them online after near-death experiences. Affable and earnest, Spinner made herself at home in war, creating a "family" despite cultural and language barriers, and hers is a unique perspective on living and reporting in Iraq.

First Sentence:
The hot cement burned the rubber soles of my sandals as I ran through the barricaded maze of blast walls, sandbags, and barbed wire sealing off the compound of the U.S. occupation authority in Baghdad.

Why did I pick this book?
I was browsing in the library, looking to see what other books they have on the Iraq War after reading Joker One: A Marine Platoon's Story of Courage, Leadership, and Brotherhood in 2009. The title caught my eye, and I thought it'd be interesting to read a book from a reporter's perspective - I always wonder why they decided to risk their lives to go.

My thoughts:
  • Jackie Spinner attempted to explain what made her go to Iraq and why reporters deserved the same support that military personnel received from the public - is it really a story of joy, loss and survival as stated in the subtitle? Well... maybe a little of each, plus her frustration and anger and vent and denial.

  • She stressed that she was unbiased and just wanted to report the truth - "Dying for my country was not as noble as dying for the truth" (p170) and "I have no message to deliver from Iraq except what I saw, what I experienced, and what I heard" (p172) - but she also said that she had to choose what she reported, "I hope that whatever I do that day makes a difference because I have no guarantee that I am going to make it back to my hotel alive. So I essentially have to decided what story is worth my life. If it is a choice between covering a horrific bomb that kills forty-seven Iraqi civilians or a pencil distribution at a school, I am going to choose the bombing." (p171-172).

  • Playing devil's advocate here - by choosing what NOT to report, while it doesn't hid the truth, it also is not representing the whole story. She stated that she included the positive stories as well, but is it 50-50 for both positive and negative stories? She didn't say. If one type of story is more worthy of her life, wouldn't she tend to choose those stories over others? Now, don't get me wrong, I appreciate that we have access to news and what is happening around the world, but I just wish we have more neutral media without hidden agenda (not saying Jackie did, just a general comment). I am a pro + con person, so I like having both sides of the stories.

  • She didn't quite explain well why reporters deserved the same public support as the military, apart from the fact that she embedded within the military and had close calls with mortar and chose to be there for us etc... but I don't think she did a very good job comparing the life of a reporter vs. that of a solider / marine / navy - is it really the same? I didn't feel she put in a strong argument if that was her goal. She didn't have me convinced at least.

  • When she came back to the US from Iraq, she got angry seeing yellow ribbons, got angry with negative bloggers' comments on her stories, got angry with almost everyone back in the US who worried about the small things when the Iraqi were dying... again, I don't think she did a very good job explaining so this sounded more like whining. I wish she could explore more about why she didn't seek counseling or how her family dealt with her when she was being difficult (her twin Jenny did mention a little)

  • I also felt the ending was a bit unfinished - so what did she finally decided?

  • The writing was a bit slow and I didn't feel very engaged. It wasn't really a page turner for me in the sense that after each chapter, I could put down the book, and went on to do something else... as opposed to immediately reading the next chapter to find out what happened. I wondered if that was because she is a reporter, and not an author, so each chapter is more like a feature story (as in the newspaper), rather than treating it as one long story throughout the book. Each chapter was loosely written in chronological order - I wrote loosely because sometimes she'd go back and forth on some events - she'd casually mention something in one chapter, then in the next chapter she'd go into more details about what she previously casually mentioned. This happened several times with different subjects, so I was a bit confused, thinking, hey, didn't that happen already?

  • I do like that her twin Jenny wrote a short passage after each chapter, to give us her side of the story. I wish her passages were longer because I actually enjoyed her writing more. Jenny's story is more "show, not tell" compared to Jackie's I think

  • I don't think I wasted my time reading this book, but I wish I was more moved and emotional while reading it (to really feel what Jackie felt) as this is after all, a book about war and suffering. She talked about her love for the Iraqi colleagues she worked with, colleagues who'd die for her, but the way she expressed her love wasn't nearly as strong as the brotherly love among the Marines expressed in Joker One by Donovan Campbell - I don't know anyone in the military but that book had my heart ached and I couldn't help but cry twice while reading.

This is one of Jenny (the twin)'s passage that really jumped out to me (p128) - while I don't think it's a spoiler, but thought I'd warn you in case you don't want to know!

"Did you feel it, Jenny?" she asked suddenly. "I know you must have felt it."

I knew what she was asking. Did "Twin Power" kick in, that inexplicable connection that allowed me to feel what she did even when I wasn't there? Throughout our lives, whenever one of us was in danger or in pain, the other inherently knew. If I had the flu, her stomach would ache. Once, when I injured my knee in a softball game, her knee throbbed for days. Several years back she was in a car accident and broke her arm. At the very moment the accident occurred, I was leaving a message on her work voice mail, telling her to check in because something didn't feel right.

Now she had almost died. Had I sensed it? Had my world stopped for just a moment as the mortar blew by her head?

"Of course, I knew it," I reassured her. "You're my twin."

But after I hung up the phone, I remained under the blanket, too ashamed to face the daylight. I hadn't felt anything at all.

In 6 words: Whole truth, nothing but the truth?

Rating: 3 Stars

Books similar to this book that I like: 

Joker One: A Marine Platoon's Story of Courage, Leadership, and Brotherhood by Donovan Campbell 

    Have you read this book? 
    If you have, I would love to hear what you think! I'll link your review here if you wish!

      100+ Reading
      Memorable Memoir


      1. I think that I'll skip this one, but I'll keep an eye out for the book you liked better. I'm not a fan of whining in memoirs.

        - Christy

      2. @Christy - If you read Joker One, would love to hear what you think! I almost end up returning it to the library without reading it but am glad I didn't.