Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story
by Diane Ackerman

I have posted my thoughts about this book - which I loved - on my book blog. It was my eighth - and final - book for this challenge in 2008. I look forward to some limited participation in this challenge in 2009. Thanks, Vasilly!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Escape by Carolyn Jessop with Laura Palmer

Published in 2007. 413 pages.

Reading Escape, the memoir of a former polygamist wife in the FLDS Church - the cult formerly led by Warren Jeffs - is a bit like driving past a bad car accident on the freeway: one isn't sure that she really wants to see what happened but she can't help staring anyway.

A compelling read - I read nearly the whole thing in one day - Jessop's account illustrates the evil of a religion that teaches that women and children are a man's property and that discourages education and individual thought. The book could have used some better editing, as it sometimes rambles and repeats itself, but it's worth a look. Escape was a Salt Lake County Library's Reader's Choice pick for the second half of 2008.

(Cross-posted from my book blog.)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith
by Anne Lamott

Published in 2007. 257 pages.

I read Anne Lamott's previous compilations of personal essays on faith - Traveling Mercies and Plan B - in 2006. (I posted some thoughts here.) I liked Grace (Eventually) about as well as Plan B but not as well as Traveling Mercies.

What I love most about Lamott's writing is that her spirituality is so "real." She takes her everyday struggles - with things like body image and her teenage son and "forgivishness" - and finds God in them. She shares her vulnerabilities with us, her readers, and we are strengthened as we realize that we, too, can receive God's grace.

Here are a few of my favorite passages:
Sometimes grace works like water wings when you feel you are sinking. [page 50]
When Jesus was asked about beauty, he pointed to nature, to the lilies of the field. Behold them, he said, and behold is a special word: it means to look upon something amazing or unexpected. Behold! It is an exhortation, not a whiny demand, like when you're talking to your child - "Behold me when I'm talking to you, sinner!" Jesus is saying that every moment you are freely given the opportunity to see through a different pair of glasses. "Behold the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, and yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these." But that's only the minor chord. The major one follows, in his anti-anxiety discourse - which is the soul of this passage - that all striving after greater beauty and importance, and greater greatness, is foolishness. It is untimately like trying to catch the wind. Lilies do not need to do anything to make themselves more glorious or cherished. Jesus is saying that we have much to learn from them about giving up striving. He's not saying that in "Get over it" way, as your mother or your last, horrible husband did. Instead he's heartbroken, as when you know an anorexic girl who's starving to death, as if in some kind of demonic possession. He's saying that we could be aware of, filled with, and saved by the presence of holy beauty, rather than worship golden calves. [pages 79-80]
The best way to change the world is to change your mind, which often requires feeding yourself. It makes for biochemical peace. It's almost like a prayer: to be needy, to eat, to taste, to be filled, building up instead of tearing down. You find energy to do something you hadn't expected to do, maybe even one of the holiest things: to go outside and stand under the stars, or to go for a walk in the morning, or in such hard times, both. [pages 252-253]

(Cross-posted from my book blog.)

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Story Of A Soul

... I saw that all the flowers He has created are lovely. The splendour of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not rob the little violet of its scent nor the daisy of its simple charm. I realised that if every tiny flower wanted to be a rose, spring would lose its loveliness and there would be no wild flowers to make the meadows gay. It is just the same in the world of souls - which is the garden of Jesus. He has created the great saints who are like the lilies and the roses, but He has created much lesser saints and they must be content to be the daisies or the violets which rejoice His eyes whenever He glances down. Perfection consists in doing His will, in being that which He wants us to be. (p.20)

I believe that if a little flower could speak, it would tell very simply and fully all that God had done for it. It would not say that it was ungraceful and had no scent, that the sun had spoilt its freshness, or that a storm had snapped its stem - not when it knew the exact opposite was true. The flower who is now going to tell her story rejoices at having to relate all the kindnesses freely done her by Jesus. She is well aware that there was nothing about her to attract His attention, and that it is His mercy alone which has created whatever there is good in her. It was He who ensured that she began to grow in a most pure and holy soil, and it was He who saw to it that eight fair lilies came before her. His love made Him want to keep His little flower safe from the tainted breezes of the world, and so she had scarcely begun to unfold her petals before He transplanted her on to the mountain of Carmel. (p.21)

The Autobiography of Saint Therese of Lisieux: The Story Of A Soul translated by John Beevers is a very inspiration book that tells of the short life of St. Therese of Lisieux, also known as the Little Flower. Marie Francoise Therese Martin was born in 1873 in Alencon, France. At the young age of fifteen she became a Carmelite nun. In 1897 she died at the age of twenty four. On May 17, 1925 she was canonised by Pius XI and became known as St. Therese of the Child Jesus.

However, The Story Of A Soul tells more about her devotion and insight to Jesus than it does about her life. The first half of the book describes her childhood and family, the calling to her vocation, and the beginning years of her life at Carmel. Then the book takes a turn and becomes more of a spiritual writing. St. Therese shares her faith and devotion to Jesus through the life lessons that she learned during her short life. I found this part of the book extremely inspirational. She uses scripture, life examples, and her thoughts and feelings when expressing these insights. And her humbleness and honesty are very refreshing.

I was watered by His tears and Precious Blood and His adorable Face was my radiant sun. (p.93)

John Beevers' introduction is informative and helps fill in the gaps of information. St. Therese's easy style of writing is enjoyable and moving. I highly recommend The Autobiography Of Saint Therese of Lisieux: The Story Of A Soul to others who like to read spiritual books or books of faith.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

To Dance: A Ballerina's Graphic Novel
by Siena Cherson Siegel and Mark Siegel

Published in 2006.
64 pages (according to, as the pages aren't numbered).
Robert F. Sibert Honor Book in 2007.

To Dance, a children's graphic novel recommended to me by my goodreads friend george, is a delightful look at the life of an aspiring ballerina.

(Cross-posted from my book blog.)

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Lucky Man: Memoir by Michael J. Fox

Originally published in 2002.
Unabridged audio book read by Michael J. Fox and Scott Brick.

A big fan of Michael J. Fox back in the Family Ties days, I enjoyed reading an excerpt of his memoir in Reader's Digest a number of years ago. Recently I had to take a short road trip by myself, so I picked up a few audio books from the library to keep me occupied and entertained. One of those was Lucky Man.

The first of the nine CDs was read by Fox himself. As I started the second disc, at first I was disappointed to hear the new reader - but Fox's personality quickly came through. Smart, honest, and funny, this was a great read. Or perhaps I should say "great listen"?

For more about Fox's work to fight Parkinson's disease, visit The Michael J. Fox Foundation Website.

(Cross-posted from my book blog.)

Thursday, November 6, 2008

An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken (Jill)

An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination
By Elizabeth McCracken
Completed November 5, 2008

I think there’s an old saying that you should never have to bury your child. Outliving my kids ranks number one in things “I don’t want to happen,” but sadly, there are parents who face this reality every day.

While some parents lose children days, months or years after their births, some parents lose their child before the baby is born, experiencing a stillborn birth. This happened to popular novelist Elizabeth McCracken and was the subject of her memoir, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination.

I have never read a book like this before. As a mom, I am uncomfortable with the thought of losing a child, so I was not sure if I could read McCracken’s story. But with McCracken’s easy writing style, I finished her memoir in one day. Every page sucked me in. And while it’s filled with sadness, you get equal doses of hope and warm memories. She touched on so many important parts of the grieving process, and her reaction to other people’s reactions taught me a lot about how to support someone experiencing a loss.

There were touching moments too. Her chapters about her husband and best friend’s support made me teary-eyed. What a lovely tribute to them both.

McCracken took an uneasy subject and made it very human, very real and very approachable. While it will strike a familiar note with women who experienced the loss of a baby, I think all parents can learn from McCracken’s story. Having gotten to know her at this level, I hope to read her fictional books some day. ( )

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Negotiating With The Dead by Margaret Atwood (Jill)

Negotiating With The Dead
By Margaret Atwood
Completed November 5, 2008

Negotiating With The Dead: A Writer on Writing was a scholarly study about writers, readers and the stories that connect them, written by Margaret Atwood. A collection of six essays based on a series of lectures given by Atwood at Cambridge University, it’s an intelligent look into what makes writers tick and the challenges faced by the writer, especially female ones.

Each essay examined a different aspect of the writing process, such as dealing with fame, mingling with the dead and the conversation between the writer and his/her reader. Atwood added many stories from her past, which I found the most fascinating. She also included lots of references to other writers and poets, including Dante, Shakespeare, Alice Munro and Adrienne Rich – to help strengthen her many thoughts about writing.

This book reminded me Joyce Carol Oates’ The Faith of a Writer. Both books require concentration and offer provocative questions about the art of writing. Fans of Atwood may be turned off by her academic tone in Negotiating With The Dead, but if you can follow along and love to read about writers, then this collection by Atwood is a must-read. ( )

Friday, October 31, 2008

Teach With Your Heart by Erin Gruwell

Subtitled Lessons I Learned From the Freedom Writers.
Published in 2007. 265 pages.

Last year I read The Freedom Writer's Diary by The Freedom Writers with Erin Gruwell and also watched the movie based on the book, Freedom Writers. At that point I planned to read Erin Gruwell's memoir of that same experience - and I got to it this month.

I enjoyed this just as much as I did the first book, and it added some information about Gruwell's personal life (including her marriage), a run she made for Congress, and how the film came to be. I think it was good for me to wait for a while after reading The Freedom Writer's Diary before reading this book. That way I got to experience the emotions I felt all over again.

I'd recommend this book to teachers and parents and anyone else who enjoys a powerful story.

Cross-posted from my book blog.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Darkness Visible - 3M's Review

Darkness Visible
by William Styron

1990, 84 pp.
Rating: stars4.gif

In this short memoir chronicling the author's own bout with depression, Styron gives us a glimpse of the pain and madness of the disease. Styron not only provides us with details of his own illness, but also expounds on the suicides and/or depression of other authors. He also gives guidelines and suggestions for action to those who have a loved one suffering with the disease.

Styron was the author of Sophie's Choice and the Pulitzer Prize winning The Confessions of Nat Turner. He died in 2006 at the age of 81 from pneumonia.

Blankets - 3M's Review

There is a lot going on in Craig Thompson's autobiographical graphic novel Blankets. With a deeply personal touch, Thompson draws and writes about his childhood and teenage years and their hardships, joys, and discoveries. Writing about his brother, family, church camps, and first love, Thompson lays it all bare. He truly had some difficult things to deal with in his childhood that no child should have to face, and we see him struggle with his faith and family relationships as a result.

While I admire the book's artwork, story, and the author himself, it is difficult for me to write this review as I disagree with (but am mostly sad about) the book's conclusion. As I was reading the book, I was hoping for it to end a certain way when in fact it went the 180 degree opposite direction. Of course, this is the author's life so he has every right to write about and illustrate how he really feels, but... I was still very sad at the end. There's no denying he has a gift for writing and illustration, though, and I would definitely pick up another one of Thompson's graphic novels in the future.

The picture below is one of the illustrations dealing with the first night that he and his brother finally get their own rooms. After waiting so long for them after sharing a room for many years, it's not hard to imagine what happens that first night. I'll save that for you to read on your own, though! (This book has mature themes and I wouldn't recommend it for those under 16 or 17.)

592 pp., 2003
Rating: stars4.gif

The Only Road North - 3M's Review

The Only Road North by Erik Mirandette is a story of brotherly love — between actual brothers and also between the Mirandettes and their fellow ‘brothers’ in need. Erik Mirandette was attending the Air Force Academy when he decided to take a two year break to focus on humanitarian efforts in Morocco. After being instrumental in bringing food and medicine to refugees in that country, he decided to take one last trek through Africa beginning in South Africa and working his way north to Cairo. His brother Alex, along with two friends, Kris and Mike, were in on the once-in-a-lifetime trip. After getting through numerous dangers and threats along the way, terror strikes them in Cairo when a suicide bomber attacks. Will Erik keep his faith and trust in God, even when the unthinkable happens?

This was a moving and sad story, but it was also full of hope. Thanks, Joy, for introducing it to me!

2007, 300 pp.
Rating: 4.5

Monday, October 27, 2008

An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination - Wendy's Review

A child dies in this book: a baby. A baby is stillborn. You don’t have to tell me how sad that is: it happened to me and my husband, our baby, a son. -From An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, page 6-

Author Elizabeth McCracken lived briefly in France, with her husband, in her early thirties. It is there she conceives her first child - a son named Pudding - and begins to dream of his life and how it will enrich her life. And then the unthinkable happens. In her ninth month of pregnancy, the child she and her husband have been anticipating dies. An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination is the story of loss and how one woman moved through it.

Elizabeth McCracken has written a stunning memoir from the heart - a love letter of sorts to her first son and her husband. Her writing is never maudlin, yet is profoundly moving - and despite the bleak subject matter, it even manages to be funny at times. But it is McCracken’s honesty which makes the memoir powerful. She never pads the emotions or avoids the uncomfortable - instead she takes the reader through one of the most devastating years of her life with candor and grace. Lest the reader shy away from the book because a baby dies, it would be remiss of me not to mention that a child is also born and lives in this book…an event that is at the same time joyous, healing and bittersweet.

I will admit that this book hit me like a sledgehammer. It sent me reeling. I felt blindsided by the intense emotions it stirred up for me…because I lost a child too. No, I have never been pregnant. My loss arrived through infertility. And McCracken’s prose resonated with me. She writes about other women’s pregnancies after her unbearable loss:

Still, I wouldn’t have minded a pause in the whole business. A sudden harmless moratorium on babies being born. Doctors would have to tell the unfortunate pregnant, “I’m sorry. It happens sometimes. Tidal, we think. For everyone else, nine months, but for you, eleven months, maybe a year, maybe more. Don’t go outside. Don’t leave your house. Stroke your stomach, fine, but only in your own living room. Keep your lullabies to yourself. We’ll let you know when it’s time.” -From An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, page 43-


No, I insist: other people’s children did not make me sad. But pregnant women did. -From An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, page 111-

She writes of that horribly destructive behavior called Blame which threatens to stand in the way of moving forward through grief:

Blame is a compulsive behavior, the emotional version of obsessive hand washing, until all you can do is hold your palms out till your hands are full of it, and rub, and rub, and accomplish nothing at all. And so we grieved but looked straight ahead. -From An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, page 143-

I found myself nodding in agreement when McCracken spoke of the pain of answering those innnocent questions about children posed by unsuspecting strangers. She wishes for a stack of cards she can hand out which say ‘My first child was stillborn‘ whenever a person coos over her second son and asks, “is this your first?” How I wish I had a similar stack of cards reading “I am infertile” for every time someone asks if I have children.

McCracken writes:

I want people to know but I don’t want to say it aloud. people don’t like to hear it but I think they might not mind reading it on a card. -From An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, page 73-

Yes. I agree.

McCracken’s great gift is that she reveals to her reader her deepest sadness, and her greatest hope. And in the end, she leaves us with a message which can sustain those who have experienced intolerable loss:

It’s a happy life, but someone is missing. It’s a happy life, and someone is missing. -From An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, page 184-

This memoir is highly recommended, but with a cautionary note. I believed I had accepted my childlessness until I began reading McCracken’s words. I found myself closing the book often to weep, and yet I kept going back to read again. For women who have either lost a child or have never been able to conceive, this is a difficult book to read - but, it is also a hopeful book and one which reminds us we are not alone in our grief.

Wendy's Challenge List

UPDATED: October 24, 2008 - This challenge is COMPLETE! Yay! Thank you Vasilly for hosting … I read some fantastic books. My favorite of the challenge was Elizabeth McCracken’s memoir: An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination - stunning and emotional with amazing writing. I’ll have to read one of her novels now!


I have a number of books that fit the criteria for this challenge. Some of them were on my alternates list for the Non Fiction Five Challenge - but I didn’t get to them, so I’ve moved them to this challenge instead! I am committing to at least FOUR books from this list:

1. Tender at the Bone, by Ruth Rechl

2. The Zookeeper’s Wife, by Diane Ackerman (COMPLETED May 12, 2008; rated 4/5; read my review)

3. Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi

4. Laughing Without An Accent, by Firoozeh Dumas (COMPLETED May 18, 2008; rated 4/5; read my review)

5. A Thousand Days in Tuscany, by Marlena de Blasi

6. Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt

7. Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, by John Steinbeck (edited by Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten)

8. Have You Found Her: A Memoir, by Janice Erlbaum (COMPLETED January 14, 2008; rated 4/5; read my review)

9. An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, by Elizabeth McCracken (COMPLETED October 24, 2008; rated 5/5; read my review)

Sunday, October 12, 2008


DEATH BE NOT PROUD by John Gunther

From the back of the book:

Johnny Gunther was only seventeen years old when he died of a brain tumor. During the months of his illness, everyone near him was unforgettably impressed by his level-headed courage, his wit and quiet friendliness, and, above all, his unfaltering patience through times of despair. This deeply moving book is a father's memoir of a brave, intelligent, and spirited boy.

I wasn't impressed by this book. Johnny Gunther was 17 but seemed more like 40 (he died in 1947). He was a middle-aged man in a teenager's body. I didn't get any feeling of youth in his father's depiction of him at all. Maybe it was because Johnny was so intelligent and consumed with school and science. I read very little of him having friends his own age.

I also didn't get any feeling on his father's part in this book. I'm sure Mr. Gunter was devastated by his only son's death, and this book was to be a testament to his son's life. But I didn't perceive any warmth in either Mr. Gunter, his wife, or Johnny. I never felt that I learned anything about Johnny or his relationship with his parents.

This book was the last book for the In Their Shoes Challenge. Thanks for hosting this fun challenge. I'd like to do this one again next year.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Myrthe's roundup

It's been a while already since I finished this challenge, but I never got around to writing round-ups. But here we go:

I read all the titles that were on my original list plus on extra. These are the books I read (links go to the reviews on my own blog):
* Simon Sebag Montefiore - Young Stalin
* Peter Balakian - Black Dog of Fate
* Shirin Ebadi - Iran Awakening
* Azar Nafisi - Reading Lolita in Tehran
* Mary S. Lovell - The Mitford Girls

All these authors were new to me. There was no major dud among these five books, I actually enjoyed them all, but the one I liked least was Reading Lolita in Tehran. My favorite was Black Dog of Fate.

Friday, October 3, 2008


HUSTLE: THE MYTH, LIFE, AND LIES OF PETE ROSE by Michael Y. Sokolove was read for the In Their Shoes Challenge.

From the back of the book:

For months Pete Rose's name was everywhere. His story was played out on the evening news and in banner headlines across the country. There were details about his sleazy associates, him gambling, and his legal battles. But what was missed, what nobody adequately answered was, Who was Pete Rose? and How could this have happened?

HUSTLE answers these questions by showing us the real Pete Rose. It cuts through the myths surrounding Charlie Hustle and explains how Rose could be both the All-American kid who got the most out of his talent and the bloated ex-athlete who broke baseball's one absolute taboo. Based on interviews with Rose's teammates, team owners, sportswriters, police, investigators, even members of Rose's own family, HUSTLE tells the full story of how a man who made himself an American hero ended up on American tragedy.

Let me preface this by telling you a little about me and baseball. My father once played semi-pro ball and knew all about the game, teaching me and passing his love of the game on to me. Daddy knew the owners of the Philadelphia Phillies and we always had first-base seats waiting for us. Spring and summer meant one thing in our house - baseball.

We lived in Cincinnati at the height of the "Big Red Machine" when the Cincinnati Reds, led by Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, and Pete Rose, were the ultimate baseball team. Pete was known as Charlie Hustle because of his approach to the game - give it all you have all the time.

But Pete Rose had problems. He was a gambler and surrounded himself with unsavory characters. He bet on the horses, football and basketball - and baseball itself.

This book tells all about Pete Rose - the good and the bad. Was he a good - great - baseball player? Absolutely. He played hard and gave his all. Was he a team player? No, he played for himself and the record books. Did he have problems? Most definitely. Did he know the rules about gambling? Of course he did. Did he care? No, he thought he was above the rules and could do whatever he wanted. And baseball officials fed into this by not holding him accountable when they had a good idea of what was happening.

I always felt that Pete Rose was an arrogant S.O.B. This book does nothing to change my opinion of him; in fact it greatly affirms my feelings. He might have been a good player but he wasn't a nice person.

Pete Rose finally admitted that he bet on baseball - on his own team. And he feels he should be reinstated into baseball (he was given a lifetime ban) and admitted to the Hall of Fame.

"I bet on my team every night. I didn't bet on my team 4 nights a week."

"I bet on my team to win every night because I love my team, I believe in my team. I did everything in my power every night to win that game."

Rose thinks he should be reinstated because "I'm the best ambassador baseball has."

(From an interview on the Dan Patrick ESPN radio show March 2007)

I really enjoyed this book. Mr. Sokolove knows baseball and admires Pete Rose for his accomplishments on the baseball field. Yet he pulled no punches, and wrote an honest appraisal of Pete Rose the man.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008


Aristocrats: Caroline, Emily, Louisa, and Sarah Lennox, 1740-1832 by Stella Tillyard is the biography of four high born sisters. As with many of the books I read, this languidly lay in the TBR for awhile. This one for almost a year, but I have quite forgotten where I read or learned about the books only observing that it seemed well criticised and popular enough for the BBC to make mini series on it. It is a thick history book around 450 pages hardcover and very in depth as it covers the lives of these four women. While I enjoy history immensely, I actually do read that many historical books, and to be honest, many of them are dry. This one was not only well researched, but Tillyard makes the prose feel, at times, as if one is reading a novel rather than a distant historical account. There are many academics who are readable and comprehensive, and there are many who are far from it. Tillyard is not only readable, but her writing is accessible to the public which is why this book is a bit of an oddity being very historical, biographical, and a best seller. As a result, one learns a lot about the lives of people in the UK and Ireland in the 18th century. It is not necessarily a page turner for everyone though, and I really only picked it up because I am interested in history, but you may not be curious if aristocrats, rich dead people, biographies, and English/Irish history are not your things. An interesting read none the less.

(Crossposted from which also has a short review of the mini series).

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Glass Castle

"How many places have we lived?" I asked Lori.
"That depends on what you mean by 'lived,'" she said. "If you spend one night in some town, did you live there? What about two nights? Or a whole week?"
I thought. "If you unpack all your things," I said.
We counted eleven places we had lived, then we lost track. We couldn't remember the names of some of the towns or what the houses we had lived in looked like. Mostly, I remembered the inside of cars.
"What do you think would happen if we weren't always moving around?" I asked.
"We'd get caught," Lori said. (p. 29)

I won't soon forget the accounts of Jeannette Walls' childhood that are shared in her book The Glass Castle. She begins at the age of three when she is accidentally burned by water on the stove while cooking hot dogs and continues through adulthood when she is finally on her own but still coming to terms with the lifestyle that her parents have chosen. Jeannette and her three siblings lived in many places and in very dire conditions. Her parents' behavior and ideas were unusual and often extreme. Living in desert towns, in the Appalachia's, and finally in New York City, their homes, schools, friends, and living conditions changed frequently. And their family's survival was a daily struggle throughout their childhoods. But one thing always remained stable throughout their lives: their father's dream of hitting it big one day as an entrepreneur and building a glass castle for his family.

One day Professor Fuchs asked if homelessness was the result of drug abuse and misguided entitlement programs, as the conservatives claimed, or did it occur, as the liberals argued, because of cuts in social-service programs and the failure to create economic opportunity for the poor? Professor Fuchs call on me.
I hesitated. "Sometimes, I think, it's neither."
"Can you explain yourself?"
"I think that maybe sometimes people get the lives they want."
"Are you saying homeless people want to live on the street?" Professor Fuchs asked. "Are you saying they don't want warm beds and roof over their heads?"
"Not exactly," I said. I was fumbling for words. "They do. But if some of them are willing to work hard and make compromises, they might not have ideal lives, but they could make ends meet."
Professor Fuchs walked around from behind her lectern. "What do you know about the lives of the underprivileged?" she asked. She was practically trembling with agitation. "What do you know about the hardships and obstacles that the underclass faces?"
The other students were staring at me.
"You have a point," I said. (pp. 256-257)

As Jeannette Walls openly admits, she did not discuss her childhood and was ashamed of how she grew up as well as how her parents chose to live. But in her memoir The Glass Castle, she finally shares that story with others. I highly recommend this book.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Walking Taylor Home

Book: Walking Taylor Home by Brian Schrauger.
Finished: August 208
Pages: 270
A simply beautiful memoir of a father's fierce love for his cancer ravaged son, as he walks him "Home"
Here is my complete review.

Thursday, August 21, 2008


HERSHEY: MILTON S. HERSHEY'S EXTRAORDINARY LIFE OF WEALTH, EMPIRE, AND UTOPIAN DREAMS by Michael D'Antonio was read for the In Their Shoes Reading Challenge.

From the book jacket:

HERSHEY. The name means chocolate to America and the world, but, as Michael D'Antonio reveals, it also stands for an inspiring man and a uniquely successful experiment in community and capitalism that produced a business empire devoted to a higher purpose.

One of the twentieth century's most eccentric and idealistic titans of industry, Milton S. Hershey brought affordable milk chocolate to America, creating and then satisfying the chocoholic urges of millions. He pioneered techniques of branding, mass production, and marketing and gained widespread fame as the Chocolate King.

But as he developed massive factories, Cuban sugar plantations, and a vacation wonderland called Hersheypark, M.S. never lost sight of a grander goal. Determined that his wealth produce a lasting legacy, he tried to create perfect places where his workers could live, perfect schools for their children, and a perfect charity to salvage the lives of needy children in perpetuity. Along the way, he overcame his personal childhood traumas as well as the death, after a short and intensely romantic marriage, of the one woman he ever loved...

Everyone knows Hershey chocolate bars, Hershey Kisses, Hershey cocoa. But do you know about Milton S. Hershey?

I grew up in Philadelphia and spent many a day at Hersheypark - my absolute favorite amusement park. I love the town of Hershey. The streetlamps on Chocolate Avenue are shaped like Hershey Kisses. There used to be a tour of the actual chocolate factory, where you could actually watch the candy being made. Now they have an attraction called Chocolate World outside the gates of Hersheypark, where you take a ride through the attraction, seeing pictures and hearing the story of the chocolate-making process. If I could live anywhere in the country, I think I'd chose the town of Hershey, Pennsylvania.

I had known some about the Milton Hershey School, but never realized how important this school was to M.S. Hershey. He left his entire fortune to the school, and the profits of the chocolate factory (and other holdings) belong to the school. Enrollment in the school is open to children between the ages of 4-15, and provides housing, clothing, medical care and education from pre-school through Grade 12 - at no cost. The children eligible to attend this school are selected from applicants from low-income families who show social need and a willingness to learn. You can learn more about the school here.

This book chronicles the life of Milton Hershey and his experimentation to find the perfect chocolate. It tells how he planned the town of Hershey (and a similar town in Cuba near his sugar plantations) to provide a place for his employees to live. And it tells how he developed his school.

Milton Hersey did not have a great childhood. His father neglected him; his mother worked hard to provide for her children. He was never a good student.

As an adult, Milton fulfilled his father's dream of success and acclaim by building a great industry. With the creation of his utopian town he heeded his mother's admonitions about serving something higher than the accumulation of personal wealth. Then, when it came time to consider his legacy, he invested his fortune with a poignant flourish. He would save himself symbolically - by rescuing little boys in the straits he knew as a child - over and over again in perpetuity.

Milton Hershey was quite a man. I think I'll go have a handful of Hershey Kisses in his honor.


Monday, August 11, 2008

Maus I & II

By Kim L
Maus I & II by Art Spiegelman
Rating: 5/5

Also posted at Bold. Blue. Adventure.
Also posted at Graphic Novel Challenge

How does a writer describe horrors that are undescribable? Write a fresh story about a period of history that's been so dissected and analyzed it seems every story that can be told has already been told? And most of all, how to write about the Holocaust without being completely overwhelmed by the telling?

Art Spiegelman chose to write his story in a comic book format. It is unlike any other comics I've read before. The illustrations are all in black and white. Different nationalities are different kinds of animals. The Jews are mice, the Poles, pigs and the Germans, cats. Spiegelman never goes into detail as to why he chose to use animals to represent the characters, but it works visually by letting the reader know immediately what nationality particular character is. On a deeper level, there animals can be taken metaphorically; the Jews have to play a cat and mouse game to survive, or mice are seen as vermin, much as the Jews were.

That Vladek managed to survive the Holocaust at all is nothing short of miraculous. His story is full of brushes with death, incredible luck, and a sixth sense for danger that keeps him alive. While in Auschwitz, he finds ways to be resourceful. When needed, he tutors a guard in English, passes himself off as a tinsmith and then as a shoe mender. He finds a way to pass messages to his wife and keep her close by.

Vladek survives, but along the way he is forced to watch nearly all the members of his family die. Each day, he might talk to someone who the next day will be dead of a guard's bullet, or gassed in the chambers, hanged, or simply disappeared. Finding enough food to live to survive the next day is the only thing on anyone's mind.

(You can click on the image to the left to see an example of one of the pages.)

This book is not just about Vladek's Holocaust experience. Framed around it is the story of how Art set out to record and process his father's story. He finds his father at best difficult and at worst downright impossible to be around. His father's overwhelming stinginess is embarrassing (They sneak into a hotel to play bingo for free because it costs $.25 a card to play at the bingo hall; Art cringes in shame when his father tries to seal up a box of cereal and return it to the grocery store, to name a few examples).

There is a particular scene in Maus II where Spiegelman tries to explain to the reader what it is like to write about the Holocaust, what it cost him to write his father's story.

Vladek started working as a tinman in Auschwitz in the spring of 1944... I started working on this page at the very end of February 1987. In May 1987 Francoise and I are expecting a baby... Between May 16, 1944 and May 24, 1944 over 100,000 Hungarian Jews were gassed in Auschwitz. In September 1986, after 8 years of work, the first part of Maus was published. It was a critical and commercial success. At least fifteen foreign editions are coming out. I've gotten four serious offers to turn my book into a T.V. special or movie. (I don't wanna.) In May 1968 my mother killed herself. (She left no note.) Lately I've been feeling depressed.

Spiegelman always presents the story in an honest manner, never covering up his conflicts with his father, or his father's volatile relationship with his second wife, but this particular passage struck me as particularly honest. His disjointed thoughts, flitting from his own personal life to the cold facts of the Holocaust and back again, could have easily come across as a distraction to the main story, but Spiegelman incorporates them in such a way that they only enhance the story by showing the reader what it means to be the child of a Holocaust survivor.

Since I've just been talking about this author's honesty, I'll be honest with you, the reader. I avoid most Holocaust novels because they just make me so damned depressed. The organized, methodical way that the Nazis invented new ways to torture fellow human beings, how many people bought into the lie that some people are superior to others... it just sickens me to read about it. So even if you are like me and would rather read the entire dictionary than another Holocaust book, let me tell you why this one is worth your time.

The first thing it's got going for it is that it's a quick read. You could breeze through both books in a couple of hours. Secondly, although it describes the familiar horrors of the overcrowded cattle cars, the shower stalls, the death chambers, this retelling brings something new to the table because the format is so different than anything else you've read on the Holocaust.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Resistance: A Woman's Journal of Struggle and Defiance in Occupied France by Agnes Humbert (Jill)

Resistance: A Woman’s Journal of Struggle and Defiance in Occupied France
By Agnes Humbert
Completed August 8, 2008

In her memoir, Resistance: A Woman’s Journal of Struggle and Defiance in Occupied France, Agnes Humbert spelled out her acts of resistance and eventual imprisonment during German-occupied France in the 1940’s. Humbert was a 43-year-old art historian when the Nazis invaded Paris, and she and her fellow intellectuals refused to be complacent with German occupation. Together, they created the short-lived Resistance newspaper – an underground publication devoted to undermining Nazi propaganda. After five months, the Gestapo detained Humbert and her allies, and for five years, she survived harsh imprisonment for her crimes, including serving time in a German work camp.

Through Humbert’s writing, readers learned about the interrogation and punishment of French nationalists, and how strenuous German work camp life was for its prisoners. Humbert’s style was easy and clipped, only containing the essential elements about her comrades and their activities. Humbert described her involvement in the Resistance as inconsequential, but historical sources (according to the book notes) showed that Humbert was a very important player. This inconsistency left me unsettled: was Humbert really insignificant or just humble?

It’s important to note that Resistance was written primarily after Humbert’s liberation. However, Humbert still wrote it in a diary-style (each entry was marked with a date), as if she had a journal and pen in prison with her. This was not the case. She worked feverishly on her “diary” for nine months after her release, and she had a solid memory because she recalled details such as times, dates, people’s appearances and the weather. Her eye as an art historian probably helped, but I wondered how one could remember such intricate details. For me, Humbert’s account would have been stronger if she had written it as a chapter-to-chapter memoir.

With that said, Resistance is a primary resource for readers interested in World War II history. Undoubtedly, Agnes Humbert was a brave, smart woman who loved her country (she also had a wicked sense of humor). While I disagree with the format of the book, the historical information gleaned from it was worthwhile and illuminating. ( )

Petite Anglaise

I have a bit of a history of reading expat memoirs, and France is a popular place for expats to write about. One of my favourite expat memoirs is Paris to the Moon. In fact, I think I've read more memoirs of living in Paris than any other. Which is to say probably a handful. I think it's mostly a habit now that if I hear of a decently written memoir about living in France, I'll read it. Though the reason I picked up this book was not only because it was an expat memoir, I knew of Petite Anglaise, as with many people, through her blog. I read it first in 2005 or late 2004 (definitely before she left Mr. Frog). While I was never a regular reader or commentator on her blog, I remember reading several of the posts and comments alluded to in the book. Even in blog format, I admired her openness in writing for her life. It is funny reading the book with things you've read about online or in a blog. It seems to be another perspective, and indeed, Catherine Sanderson seems to differentiate herself and Petite. I enjoyed this memoir because the question is elicits in personal blogging. How much do we or should we reveal? Do a lot of us blog when we are unhappy as a creative and cathartic outlet? Overall, I like how this memoir posed these questions about online dating, personalities or public writing. I think Sanderson writes in a clear style and voice.


Laura's Review - Paula

Isabel Allende
330 pages

At the age of 28 Isabel Allende's daughter, Paula, was stricken by porphyria and lapsed into a coma. Paula was written at her bedside as a way to work through emotions and unfinished business. Allende re-tells the tragic story of Paula's illness and treatment, while simultaneously recounting her life story.

I cannot begin to imagine the strain of caring for someone with a long-term illness. Allende approached the situation with fierce devotion and drive, doing everything within her power to help Paula. She rallied other family members even during the darkest times, and turned to her writing for emotional release.

Isabel Allende is one of my favorite authors, so I found it quite interesting to learn about her childhood, the family members who inspired her writing, and her escape from Chile's political unrest. In turn, she inspired me as a feminist, a mother, and a deeply spiritual woman. ( )

My original review can be found here.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

wednesday night run

first time on pavement for awhile
sound of rubber hitting asphalt
dogs barking in dark corners
cats jumping out of gutters and slinking across the street
headlights shining in my eyes
skipping over potholes, speed bumps
turn corner onto e. ponce
whizzing past the post office
sweat dripping off arms onto hands onto pavement
cars passing to the left
bass pumping out of windows at the stop light
whizzing past taco mac, ruby tuesday
couples snuggling into each other behind windows
sharing food, conversation, lips
laptops open to powerpoint presentation on tables
sipping coffee, reading paper
whizzing past starbucks
man playing saxaphone on bench
lovely jazzy sound almost want to stop and lie in the grass
couples drinking and talking not 100 yards from jazz music
coming up to church street
man walking toward me with two huge incense sticks burning
saying something i can't understand
sure do like the smell of the musky incense
woman walking, looking all around, .. phone
workers taking out trash from tai me up
tired and ready to crawl into bed after feeding decatur
continue on toward avondale station
dark, dark, dark
people walking on other side of street
men sitting on wall laughing and talking
figuring out how to solve the world's problems
on a wall in downtown decatur with the faint sound of jazz music and the faint smell of incense in the air

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Laura's Review - Brother, I'm Dying

Brother, I'm Dying
Edwidge Danticat
270 pages

In Brother, I'm Dying Edwidge Danticat has written a book that is both a personal memoir and an homage to the two most significant male figures of her childhood: her father and uncle. Danticat was born in Haiti and raised primarily by her aunt and uncle after her parents left to start a new life in New York. At the age of twelve she and her brother were reuinted with their parents, and with two more brothers born in New York. Her memoir highlights the emotional impact of such an unusual childhood, but this is not a negative tell-all story. Rather, Danticat focuses more on Haiti's tumultuous political climate, its effect on her uncle and other relatives, her parents' struggle as immigrants, and the relationship between her father and uncle, which only develops when they are well into adulthood.

In 2004, just as Danticat was anticipating her first child, she also faced the responsibility of caring for aging parents. Her father had a life-threatening condition and was declining rapidly. Her uncle was still in reasonably good health, but was forced to leave Haiti during riots that same year. On arrival in the U.S., he became the victim of distressing acts of bigotry and prejudice, was held in a detention center, and died within days. Danticat matter-of-factly described the series of events that led to his death, in a way that made me feel simultaneously outraged and heart-broken.

Danticat is a talented writer; I enjoyed her novel Breath, Eyes, Memory (read my review), and look forward to reading more of her work. ( )
My original review can be found here.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Me Talk Pretty One Day

My fear and discomfort crept beyond the borders of the classroom and accompanied me out onto the wide boulevards. Stopping for a coffee, asking directions, depositing money in my bank account: these things were out of the question, as they involved having to speak [French]. Before beginning school, there'd be no shutting me up, but now I was convinced that everything I said was wrong. When the phone rang, I ignored it. If someone asked me a question, I pretended to be deaf. I knew my fear was getting the best of me when I started wondering why they don't sell cuts of meat in vending machines. (pp. 171-172)

My son was teasing me this past weekend while I was enjoying David Sedaris' book Me Talk Pretty One Day. He said, "There goes Mom again... giggling while she reads a book!" But there is no other way to describe this book other than a collection of funny yet simple essays about the life and times of David Sedaris as told by David Sedaris. The first section (one) recounts stories of Sedaris in the United States and the second section (deux) recounts stories of Sedaris in France. He covers many different topics during different times in his life, often times expressing or explaining the difficulties he has had in understanding people, things, and language. My favorite selections include Genetic Engineering, The Learning Curve, Today's Special,, The Tapeworm Is In, Make That A Double, and Smart Guy.

As a child I'd always harbored a sneaking suspicion that I might be a genius. The theory was completely my own, corroborated by no one, but so what? Being misunderstood was all part of the package. My father occasionally referred to me as "Smart Guy," but eventually I realized that when saying it, he usually meant just the opposite. (p. 241)

Me Talk Pretty One Day is a smart read, lots of fun, and a good introduction to David Sedaris, which is why it was recommended to me in the first place. I really enjoyed this book and pass along the recommendation to others.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

raidergirl3 list of books

I've been making a list of books that I'd like to read for this challenge. Some of these are from the Cardathon Challenge and some I own; some I just really want to read. I will probably add to this list, but I hope to read 8 memoirs/biographies/autobiographies next year for this challenge.

1. Never Have Your Dog Stuffed - Alan Alda
2. Running With Scissors - Augustus Burrows
3. Teacher Man - Frank McCourt
4. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid - Bill Bryson
5. A Long Way Gone - Ishmael Beah
6. Reading Lolita in Tehran - Azzar Nafisi
7. Maus I and II - Art Spiegelman
8. I Shouldn't Even Be Doing This - Bob Newhart
9. Brainiac - Ken Jennings
10. Persepolis 1 and 2 - Marjane Satrapi

ETA: July 20, 2008: And that makes 8 books I've read, so I am finished this challenge. Yay me! A few got added after I started, and there are more I'd still like to read, but it's been great. Thanks for hosting Vasilly.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Mitford Girls by Mary S. Lovell

The six sisters collectively known as the Mitford Girls were not only very different and interesting characters of themselves, living in an interesting time in history, but the way their lives turned out, makes them even more fascinating.

So let me briefly introduce them. The oldest, Nancy, was born in 1904 and became a very successful writer, getting much of her inspiration from her own surroundings. Then there was Pam, one of the quieter, lesser known sisters. The two younger sisters Diana and Unity more than made up for that. Diana falls in love with and later marries Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Fascist Party, and becomes an ardent supporter of Fascism and Nazism. Unity gets acquainted with and becomes a personal friend of Adolf Hitler. In fact, Diana may have been one of the very few if not the only person who counted both Hitler and Winston Churchill (he married into the family when he married a cousin of the girls' father) among her personal friends. Decca's political preferences go in an entirely different direction: she becomes a communist, in the late 30s she runs off to the civil war against Franco in Spain and eventually ends up in the US. The youngest sister, Debo, was born in 1920. Like Pam, she is one of the "quieter" of the sisters, though in her own way she makes something remarkable of her life, becoming a business woman and successfully leading and expanding her husband's estate, making it one of the few profitable estates in the country. There is a fairly recent interview with her here.

I found Decca the most interesting of the sisters, because she was the only one who actually broke free of the life and conventions of her class and ended up leading a life different from what was expected of her. She was the most unconventional of the six. The others, no matter how "funky" their political opinions, still stayed within what was expected of them by their social background. Debo and Pam, in The Mitford Girls at least, stayed a bit in the background, probably because they were the most "ordinary" of the six. Relatively speaking that is. I would have loved to find out more about them. Though for that I suppose I'd have to read one of the numerous other books that have been written about one or more of the sisters.

The most interesting part of the book were the chapters dealing with the period from the late twenties until the end of the Second World War. Anyone who reads this book cannot but read that part with hindsight, knowing what Fascism and Nazism would lead to, knowing about the Holocaust.

In fact, the same goes for Decca's becoming a communist in the thirties. At this time Stalin's terror was pretty much at its top. This was one question I had that didn't get answered in this book: to what extent did Decca really believe in Communism as an ideal, a solution for economic and social problems or was Communism for her a way to combat Fascism. Or was she just some sort of fellow-traveler. Even more important, to what extent was she aware of what was happening in the Soviet Union, the Gulags, the executions and persecutions, the famines following the collectivization of the agricultural sector. This book at least doesn't say anything about her knowledge of and attitude towards all this.

Many more pages are dedicated to Unity's infatuation for Hitler an Diana's support for Nazism and Fascism. During her life, Diana actually never apologized for or repented her support for Fascism. I found Diana an interesting woman as well.

Apart from the six women's roaring lives, this book also gives a very interesting picture of upper class life in England and especially of the social mores and conventions that the girls had to cope with and adhere to in the first half of the twentieth century. One thing that struck me was how the different families were on the one hand continually selling their mansions, houses, and parts of their estates because they couldn't afford their upkeeping anymore, moving into smaller living places all the time, but on the other they were also continually traveling abroad, sending their children to finishing school abroad, and they kept buying land and houses as well. All these changes in property were sometimes hard to keep up with. To my 21st century mind it was sometimes hard to understand the logic behind not being able to afford one thing, but at the same time spending so much money on other luxuries.

Another thing that struck me is how seemingly common extramarital affairs were in the society in which the Mitfords lived. Don't get me wrong, I am not a prude and all this adultery going on didn't bother me as such, it was just one of the things I noticed while reading the book. Extramarital affairs seemed to have been acceptable for both men and women, but at the same time once a woman was divorced, her social status was gone. This became very clear when Diana's affair with Oswald Mosley was discussed in the book. When their relationship started, Diana was still married to someone else. She did push through a divorce, despite the objections of many, her own parents among them. Diana's mother even forbade some of the younger sisters to visit Diana after her divorce.

All in all, I enjoyed The Mitford Girls enormously. Mary S. Lovell wrote a fast-paced, seemingly well researched book, that gives an intriguing look into the lives of a family that was notorious and famous at the time and also into upper-class life in England in the first half of the twentieth century in general. I highly recommend this book as an introduction into the Mitford family.

As always, if you have reviewed this book on your blog, leave a comment with the link to your review or send me an email with the link, so I can include it in the post.

Friday, July 11, 2008


I SHOULDN'T EVEN BE DOING THIS! by Bob Newhart was read for the In Their Shoes Challenge.

From the book jacket:

Most comedians are committable. People say I'm the most normal of all comedians - and I'm still certifiable. - from Chapter One

That stammer. Those basset-hound eyes. That bone-dry wit. There has never been another comedian like Bob Newhart. In this, his first book ever, Newhart gives his brilliant and bemused twist on a multitude of topics, including flying, the trials of a family holiday in a Winnebago, and more serious subjects, such as golf. And, of course, there are side-splittingly funny stories from his life and career. Who else has a drinking game named after him? ("Hi, Bob!")

He writes of his few years as an accountant (he routinely grew so frustrated trying to reconcile petty cash that he would round up and down using his own pocket change). He describes his surprise at the groundbreaking success of his albums, starting with The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, which was the first comedy album ever to hit #1 on the charts and won the Grammy for Album of the Year (beating Sinatra). There are stories from the legendary television shows, which spent fifteen years on prime time, and tales of other comedy greats. Ans as counterpoint throughout, he provides excerpts from some of his classic routines, which revolutionized comedy.

This isn't a memoir like most memoirs. It's a book only Bob Newhart could have written, with his unique worldview and irrepressibly wry humor on every page. Oh, and there's a fair bit of plain silliness, too.

I love Bob Newhart. Back when I was a teenager, my friend Tina and I would listen to an album of his, The Button-Down Mind Strikes Back. He did a bit about computers and automation that included the line "Sit down, machine" done in a computer-type voice that cracked me up. (I guess you had to be there!)

Saturday nights, we always watched The Bob Newhart Show with Bob as Dr. Hartley and Suzanne Pleshette as his wife Emily. Then later, Newhart on Monday nights with Bob as Vermont-inn-owner Dick Louden and Mary Frann as his wife. Do you remember Larry and his brothers Darrell and Darrell? And the fantastic ending to that show?

So it's hard for me to say that I didn't really enjoy this book that much. There were parts that were very good, such as the texts of various comedy routines. Reading those, I could picture Bob and hear his voice. But other parts of the book dragged for me.

I guess I was looking for more Bob Newhart as Dr. Hartley and Dick Louden than Bob Newhart as Bob Newhart.


Wednesday, July 9, 2008


ROOTS by Alex Haley was read for the In Their Shoes Challenge and the Chunkster Challenge.

From the book flap:

"Early in the spring of 1750, in the village of Juffure, four days upriver from the coast of The Gambia, West Africa, a man-child was born to Omoro and Binta Kente."

So begins ROOTS, one of the most important and influential books of our time. When originally published thirty years ago, it galvanized the nation and created an extraordinary political, racial, social, and cultural dialogue that had not been seen in this country since the pulication of UNCLE TOM'S CABIN.

ROOTS has lost none of its emotional power and drama, and its message for today's and future generations is even more vital and relevant than it was thirty years ago.

When he was a boy in Henning, Tennessee, Alex Haley's grandmother used to tell him stories about their family - stories that went back to her grandparents, and their grandparents, down through the generations all the way to a man she called "the African." She said he had lived across the ocean near what he called the "Kamby Bolongy" and had been out in the forest one day chopping wood to make a drum when he was set upon by four men, beaten, chained and dragged aboard a slave ship bound for Colonial America.

Still vividly remembering the stories after he grew up and became a writer, Haley began to search for documentation that might authenticate the narrative. It took ten years and a half a million miles of travel across continents to find it, but finally, in an astonishing feat of genealogical detective work, he discovered not only the name of "the African" - Kunta Kinte - but the precise location of Juffure, the very village in The Gambia, West Africa, from which he was abducted in 1767 at the age of sixteen and taken on the Lord Ligonier to Maryland and sold to a Virginia planter.

Haley has talked in Juffure with his own African sixth cousins. On September 29, 1967, he stood on the dock in Annapolis where is great-great-great-great-grandfather was taken ashore on September 29, 1767. Now he has written the monumental two-century drama of Kunta Kinte and the six generations who came after him - slaves and freedmen, farmers and blacksmiths, lumber mill workers and Pullman porters, lawyers and architects - and one author.

I had seen the TV mini-series of ROOTS a long time ago. So when looking for a book for the In Their Shoes Challenge, this one jumped out at me. I enjoyed the mini-series and wanted to learn more about this family.

One thing I did learn that was unexpected was the fact that Alex Haley had been sued for plagiarism by Harold Courlander who wrote the book THE AFRICAN. Mr. Haley settled out of court and admitted that some parts of the book were taken from THE AFRICAN. This fact led me to question the book as a whole - was it to be considered fact or fiction? Mr. Haley answered that question:

"To the best of my knowledge and of my effort, every lineage statement within ROOTS is from either my African or American families' carefully preserved oral history, much of which I have been able conventionally to corroborate with documents. Those documents, along with the myriad textural details of what were contemporary indigenous lifestyles, cultural history, and such that give ROOTS flesh have come from years of intensive research in fifty-odd libraries, archives, and other repositories on three continents.

Since I wasn't around when most of the story occurred, by far most of the dialogue and most of the incidents are of necessity a novelized amalgam of what I know took place together with what any researching let me to plausibly feel took place."

So - a mixture of fact and fiction. Still a terrific book. Reading this, I could picture scenes from the mini-series. I could see LaVar Burton as the young Kunta Kinte in chains on the slave ship. John Amos as the older Kunte - now named Toby - and Madge Sinclair as Bell jumping the broom. Leslie Uggams as their daughter Kizzy, and Ben Vereen as the wonderful Chicken George.

My one complaint with this book was the fact that as the story moved from generation to generation, lives were just dropped. The story of Toby and Bell abruptly ended when the focus turned to Kizzy as she was sold to a new owner. Perhaps Mr. Haley couldn't find any documentation of what happened to them after that time, but it was a let-down after following Kunta Kinte for 546 pages. I was hoping to find out what life was like for them without their daughter.

I'm going to either rent or buy this mini-series on DVD along with the sequel "Roots: The Next Generation" which was based on the follow-up book by Mr. Haley.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson's memoir of growing up in 1950s Iowa. I have liked Bryson's writing for many years and have devoured most of his travel writing. He is always funny, candid, and incredibly observant and insightful. He seems to do a good deal to research his books as well. While this is a memoir, there is commentary on the 1950s as a whole particularly in the US. Bryson admits that he his childhood was not particularly unique or traumatic and yet, as I usually do, he takes simple subjects and revels in the day to day life of being a child in a relatively prosperous and peaceful time. I enjoyed this quick memoir even if I did not live in the 1950s, but there are many moments that remind me of childhood in general. He captures the idiosyncratic nature of the whole time of our lives with his usual writing of his memories. A nice, light read.

Crossposted from

Monday, July 7, 2008

Pyongyang by Guy Delisle

Pyongyang: A journey in North Korea is Guy Delisle (a Quebecois, now living in France) graphuc memoir of two months spent working in the North Korean capital for a French animation company outsourcing work to the North Koreans. It is a fascinating look at North Korea and its regime. While he is not in NK for very long, Delisle observes the expat community of NK, and the dictatorial regime's forceful propaganda machine. All foreigners seem to be kept in a very closed bubble constantly watched by their assigned guides. The author takes a copy of Orwell's 1984 and observes the parallel. It is apt because the regime seems to permeate in all aspects. It is the most closed country in the world, and it is rather frightening the extent in which the whole population seems to live in a bubble themselves. Without any outside media and severe limited ability to travel and educate themselves, many seem to genuinely believe the personal cult and god-like presence of the Kims even if one of them is dead. The cult of personality is rather creepy. Though there is little choice, but to pretend to believe because the dictatorship has some of the worse human rights violations globally. A lot of what the memoir describes is not creepy. Nothing can last forever, and the NK regime certainly won't. It will be interesting when that happens since the country is in a time warp. It's like how people go to Cuba and say it looks the 1950s, but North Korea and its population seem to be still in the 50s since they are limited in communications, food security, electricity, industrialisation and manufacturing. Since the culture is protected is by the government, art is monitored. This is especially significant in that all its neighbours are accelerating at a very fast rate in the globalisation. Having read on North Korea a bit from my studies, I would recommend further reading of the subject if you are intrigued after this short, but interesting read.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Challenge Completed!

I completed my personal goal (no specified number required for the challenge) at the end of June by reading 10 memoirs. Memoirs is one of my favorite genres, so this challenge fit nicely into my desired reading choices. As I was making up my possibilities list, I discovered many others that I have added on my TBR list and look forward to reading them.

Thank you N. Vasillis from In Their Shoes for hosting this challenge!

In Their Shoes Challenge Reads:

The Birthday Party: A Memoir of Survival (Alpert)
The Nazi Officer's Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust (Beer)
If I Am Missing or Dead: A Sister's Story of Love, Murder, and Liberation (Latus)
A Child Called "It": One Child's Courage to Survive (Pelzer)
My Life as a Furry Red Monster: What Being Elmo Has Taught Me About Life, Love and Laughing Out Loud (Clash)
Blankets (Thompson)
Maus I: A Survivor's Tale (Spiegelman)
A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail (Bryson)
The Lost Boy (Pelzer)
Maus II: A Survivor's Tale (Spiegelman)

Here's my original list of books with links to my thoughts.

The Nazi Officer's Wife (Beer)
A Child Called "It" (Pelzer)
Maus II: A Survivor's Tale (Spiegelman)

Least Favorites:
(these were still okay/good reads)
The Birthday Party (Alpert)
If I Am Missing or Dead (Latus)
My Life as a Furry Red Monster (Clash)

Monday, June 30, 2008

Juli's Review: A Piece of Cake

Author: Cupcake Brown

Pages: 470

Genre: Non-Fiction/Autobiography

Personal Rating: 5/5

From the back cover:
There are shelves of memoirs about overcoming the death of a parent, childhood abuse, rape, drug addiction, miscarriage, alcoholism, hustling, gangbanging, near-death injuries, drug dealing, prostitution, or homelessness.

Cupcake Brown survived all these things before she’d even turned twenty.

And that’s when things got interesting….

You have in your hands the strange, heart-wrenching, and exhilarating tale of a woman named Cupcake. It begins as the story of a girl orphaned twice over, once by the death of her mother and then again by a child welfare system that separated her from her stepfather and put her into the hands of an epically sadistic foster parent. But there comes a point in her preteen years—maybe it’s the night she first tries to run away and is exposed to drugs, alcohol, and sex all at once—when Cupcake’s story shifts from a tear-jerking tragedy to a dark comic blues opera. As Cupcake’s troubles grow, so do her voice and spirit. Her gut-punch sense of humor and eye for the absurd, along with her outsized will, carry her through a fateful series of events that could easily have left her dead.

Young Cupcake learned to survive by turning tricks, downing hard liquor, partying like a rock star, and ingesting every drug she could find while hitchhiking up and down the California coast. She stumbled into gangbanging, drug dealing, hustling, prostitution, theft, and, eventually, the best scam of all: a series of 9-to-5 jobs. But Cupcake’s unlikely tour through the cubicle world was paralleled by a quickening descent into the nightmare of crack cocaine use, till she eventually found herself living behind a Dumpster.

Astonishingly, she turned it around. With the help of a cobbled together family of eccentric fellow addicts and “angels”—a series of friends and strangers who came to her aid at pivotal moments—she slowly transformed her life from the inside out.

A Piece of Cake is unlike any memoir you’ll ever read. Moving and almost transgressive in its frankness, it is a relentlessly gripping tale of a resilient spirit who took on the worst of contemporary urban life and survived it with a furious wit and unyielding determination. Cupcake Brown is a dynamic and utterly original storyteller who will guide you on the most satisfying, startlingly funny, and genuinely affecting tour through hell you’ll ever take.
I couldn't believe this was a true story by the time it I was finished. It was simply too horrific at times to have actually happened. This girl should be dead, she should be imprisoned...but she isn't...she is a lawyer and a functional member of society!

This is one eye opening look into our failing foster care system and how easy it for children and simply people in general to fall between the cracks. At the same time however, it is also a story about "making it" and picking yourself up and being somebody.

This book gave me perspective and what it really means to have hard times and be down. It also refocused me on what CAN be accomplished with hard work, dedication and determination.

I have never done this before but I am going to contact Cupcake Brown and just let her know what an impact her book had on me.

Sometimes I (we) think we have it bad, and sometimes we do. Usually we don't. This book really allowed me to set my priorities straight and appreciate how good I really do have it, even with the problems I do have.

I believe that this is such a good book that I would like to give it to someone. If you are interested in this book please come over to my blog HERE and leave me a comment. I'll randomly pick someone in one week to mail it to.