Civilization explores two very different struggling cultures: the people of Kyrgyzstan and the Apache Native Americans. Both populations face the repercussions of globalization as they attempt to adjust to the pressures of the modern world while maintaining their traditions. What parallels do you see between the two villages? In what ways does globalization affect each of these peoples — their cultural identities, their languages, their ways of life? What did you learn about the conditions in Central Asia and the plight of American Indians that you did not know before? Can you think of other examples of a people affected by the pressures of globalization?
In the first half of the book, Rosenberg alternates between the story of Jeff in Kyrgyzstan and the story of Adam on the Apache reservation. How does the structure of the novel change throughout? In what ways do you think this structure affects the stories being told?
Turkey, because of its strategic location, is often thought to be a bridge between East and West. Jeff's girlfriend, Melodi, says that the Turks "don't trust Europe or Asia — we don't know which direction to look. We want both. We want everything" (page 158). How does Turkey compare to Kyrgyzstan and the Apache reservation in the kinds of identity problems the people face? What point do you think Rosenberg is making by bringing all of his disparate characters together in Istanbul?
On Jeff's last night in Kyzyl Adyr-Kirovka, he thinks that "the farther from the village he got, the more he dreaded America, massive wealthy modern America" (109). What role does America play throughout the book? How do the various characters and cultures perceive it? Do characters' attitudes change over time, in different situations? How does Jeff perceive America? Does his attitude toward a "motherland" differ from those of the other characters? Did reading this book change the way you think about America?
This Is Not Civilization? explores family, specifically father-child relationships. How would you describe the dynamics between Adam and Larson Dale, between Nazira and Anarbek? How do you think these two relationships compare to each other? Do these relationships change over time? Do the parents want different things for their children than the children want for themselves? Did you ever experience such parent-child tensions in your own life?
What role do you think the theme of escape plays in the novel? Why does Jeff leave his home and live in different countries? Why does Adam? Anarbek?
As the father figures in their villages, Anarbek and Larson Dale struggle with the outside pressures on their villages. When Anarbek leaves his village to find Jeff in Istanbul, do you think he is being selfish or selfless? Do you think he changes while he is in Istanbul? When Larson Dale destroys the makeshift white dome that was to house a new school in his village, do you think he is destroying the possibility of progress or preserving his culture? Does he change throughout the novel?
Discuss the themes of violence and anger in the novel. How do Larson Dale and Levi's recklessness define them? In what ways do their behaviors affect them and those around them?
The traditions surrounding love and marriage play an important role throughout This Is Not Civilization. In what ways is the Kyrgyz view of marriage unique? How do Nazira's and Jeff's attitudes toward love and marriage compare? How do you think their personal and cultural beliefs affect their relationship?
In what ways, if any, does Melodi's cultural background affect her relationship with Jeff? What are the attitudes toward love and marriage in Turkey? How do they differ from those in America?
At the end of their time in Istanbul, long after Nazira has been romantically involved with Jeff, she and Adam fall in love. What brings these two seemingly different characters together? What similarities do you see between them? Does either of them change as a result of their relationship?
Food and drink are important in both Kyrgyz and Apache cultures. What roles do festivities and gift-giving play in the novel? How does the Kyrgyz tradition of being a good host differ from other cultures, both in the book and in the world? How do such traditions compare to your own? Do you think Western societies place the same kind of emphasis on sharing festivities with friends and family?
At the end of the story, a giant earthquake hits Istanbul and kills thousands of people. What role does this tragedy plays in the book, and why does Rosenberg include it? How does this tragedy affect the characters and Turkey as a whole? Does the attendant chaos reveal any truths for the characters? In what ways does the tragedy connect Istanbul to Nazira's and Adam's villages?
The words of the book's title appear early on, when Yuri, the eccentric Kygryz vodka maker, says to Jeff, "Moscow is halfway across the continent. Here, your America exists only in our imagination. This is not civilization" (59). In what ways does this theme echo throughout the story? Do you think Jeff experiences this sentiment during his travels? How do the indigenous people feel about their own culture —; in what ways do they feel shame about their traditional culture? In what ways do they feel pride?
At the end of the book, when Adam rents a hotel room with Nazira in Istanbul and they experience the luxury of soft beds and pillows for the first time, he says, "I used to sleep on an old mattress on the floor. I thought it was the most comfortable thing in the world. I'm glad I never tried one of these" (244). Do you see a "Pandora's box" theme recurring throughout the novel? What role do you think it plays for the characters and their villages? Have you ever experienced this feeling in your own life?
Houghton Mifflin Company -
"Review A Day"
by Ron Charles, The Christian Science Monitor,
"[W]hat a generous, big-hearted book this is, perceptive enough to catch the goodness in all these well-intentioned people. Each of them endures the sting of inadequacy, but they're all tethered to a sense of compassion that snaps them back from despair. Yes, the incurably charitable are hungering for their own salvation in the act of feeding others, but that cynical insight, Rosenberg argues, mustn't lead us to scorn the whole enterprise. In an era that gave us the term 'compassion fatigue,' his novel is a gentle rousing by someone who understands the complicated rewards of caring." (read the entire Christian Science Monitor review)
by The New York Times,
"The details are bracing and exact....[J]ournalistic, humane and heart-wrenching."
by Library Journal,
"A wonderful work; highly recommended."
by Kirkus Reviews,
"[A]n intelligent, earnest, and highly readable first novel."
by Phyllis Rose, author of Parallel Lives,
"I fell in love with Robert Rosenberg reading the first sentence of this book. What a precise, smart, elegant writer he is...Beware: you're likely to stay up all night to finish it."
by Brady Udall, author of The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint,
"Audacious and understated, exotic and intimate. Every line...rings with authenticity, every moment breathes with love and life and heartache."
by Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer Prize?winning author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain,
"A remarkable novel that illuminates the most important struggle of our times: to find a self and to find kindredness in a world where our shared humanity is often lost to the claims of our superficial differences...Not only a wonderfully readable work of fiction but also an important one."
Rosenberg's ambitious and addictive first novel brings to life a culturally diverse group of well-meaning characters whose ambitions exceed their grasp.
Anarbek Tashtanaliev runs a Soviet cheese factory that produces no cheese, and his favorite daughter has been stolen in an ancient courting ritual. But the United States sends to his Kyrgyz village what he hopes will be the solution to all his problems: an American Peace Corps volunteer. Jeff Hartig has just left an Apache reservation where he failed to keep a teen center up and running. Saddened but still hopeful that he can effect positive change, Jeff arrives in Central Asia ill prepared for Anarbek's fervent ambitions and the aggressively hospitable local culture. He finds himself teaching English to milkmaids and entangled in Anarbek's corrupt business schemes, again left to wonder what difference he can make to a culture struggling to survive.
A few years later Anarbek, his daughter, Jeff, and Adam, an Apache from the reservation where Jeff worked, converge in Istanbul, and their fortunes become interwoven. The four share an apartment in the magical, sprawling city. Each on the run from the past, together they form a patchwork expatriate family, unaware that they will soon face one of the most disastrous earthquakes in history.
Exotic, romantic, and deeply moving, this novel brilliantly explores America's relationship to indigenous peoples, the need to find morality amid corruption, and the connection between people and their homeland. It is also a touching love story about those caught between age-old tradition and the dangerous allure of the contemporary world.
In the tradition of Prague and White Teeth, This Is Not Civilization is an inspired, sweeping first novel that hopscotches from Arizona to Central Asia to Istanbul with a well-meaning, if misguided, young Peace Corps volunteer. Jeff Hartig lies at the center of this modern take on the American-abroad tale, which brings together four people from vastly different backgrounds, each struggling with the push and pull of home. Young Apache Adam Dale forsakes the reservation for the promise of a world he knows little about. Anarbek Tashtanaliev, of post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan, operates a cheese factory that no longer produces cheese. Nazira, his daughter, strains against the confines of their villages age-old traditions. Ultimately the lives of these four collide in a crowded apartment in Istanbul on the eve of the 1999 earthquake. There this unlikely group discovers hope, friendship, and the power of human connection.
With captivating insight, realism, and humor, Robert Rosenberg delivers a sensitive story about the cost of trying to do good in the world. He also brilliantly explores the relationship between America and indigenous peoples, the need to find morality amid corruption, and the responsibility of people to their homeland.
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