Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Bone Woman by Clea Koff

Koff was a forensic anthropology grad student in the mid 1990s, and worked for the UN excavating mass graves in the Balkans and Rwanda. The Bone Woman is her memoir, and I really enjoyed it! Much less gore and science than you might expect, more personal stories. I wrote a longer review on my blog.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Expecting Adam

I received Expecting Adam by Martha Beck as a gift when I was about 14 weeks pregnant with my daughter. That's the time when one is tested for possible genetic abnormalities like Down Syndrome. Expecting Adam is Beck's memoir of her difficult pregnancy with Adam, her son who has Down Syndrome.

As some one who has suffered through two miscarriages for unknown reasons, I completely understand Beck's decision to continue with her pregnancy even though her son would require extra help at school and would be at risk for heart problems. I would have done the same with either of my children too. Like Beck, I would have used remaining time in my pregnancy to learn as much as I possibly could about my child's condition.

Beck's memoir covers the time just before her second pregnancy, through her pregnancy and shortly after the delivery. She also bounces forward and backward in her life to show what life was like before Adam and what it's like with him. He is bookended by his two sisters.

On top of the stress of a difficult pregnancy (Beck's descriptions of her morning sickness makes mine seem like a cake walk!) she also had the stress of being a graduate student at Harvard and having a husband who was constantly traveling as part of his research. Although I'm not a graduate student, my husband has been through both pregnancies and he had to do a lot of traveling when I was pregnant with our son.

I usually shy away from parenting memoirs but I really enjoyed this one. I felt a connection to Beck and when I was done with the book I immediately called my mother to tell her about it. In fact I'm mailing the book to her next week.

The book does have a few flaws. The writing is rough in places and sometimes in need of clearer segues. Nonetheless, it's one of the best books I've read this year.

Life Is So Good

Author: George Dawson and Richard Glaubman
Rating: 5/5
Reason for Reading: In Their Shoes Reading Challenge

Cross-posted at Bold. Blue. Adventure.

I won this book because of My Year of Reading Dangerously Challenge (Yay!). The cover and title don't make it sound like an exciting read, but in reality, this was a fascinating, sometimes gripping read. George Dawson, the grandson of slaves, lived to be 103. The reason he became well-known (and thus this book was written) is because at the age of 98, he made the decision to learn how to read, a skill that had been denied him as a poor black man in the early 1900's.

In this memoir, George writes about growing up in the segregated south. As a young child, he witnessed a lynching of a man he knew to be innocent. While trying to process the horrifying experience, he has an exchange with his father:

"I will never work for or talk to a white person again," I said with anger.... Papa swallowed hard and pulled up on the reins so that the wagon stopped. He turned towards me. "No. You will work for white folks. You will talk to them... Some of those white folks was mean and nasty. Some were just scared. It doesn't matter. You have no right to judge another human being. Don't you ever forget." My father had spoken. There was nothing to say. I didn't know it then, but his words set the direction my life would take even to this day.

George had a good many adventures during his life, from playing on the Negro Leagues to riding the rails all the way from Mexico to Canada and everywhere in between. He recounts his experiences during The Great Depression, the Civil Rights movement and other turning points of the past century.

I could outline all of the events of the book, and really it wouldn't capture what the book is exactly about. Yes, the book brings the reader through the dirty underside of racism, but that isn't what the book is about either. He experienced many of the things most of us only know from history books, and it included a great deal of hardship. I guess you could say that this book is an attempt to tell his story, and recount how he managed to maintain his dignity and optimism through all of it.

George Dawson is a truly remarkable man. After joining an Adult Education class, he stayed with it until he had earned a GED. He seems a bit incredulous that so many people are fascinated and inspired by him, but glad to talk to people and help them all the same. You'll be glad you read this book.

Monday, May 26, 2008

# 9 The Lost Boy (Pelzer)

Dave Pelzer continues his life story after being rescued from his parent's home. He shares his experience in the foster care system. While his behavior as a child left a lot to be desired, he continued to persevere and make something of his life.

This book contained just as much heart wrenching turmoil as in A Child Called "It". David's childhood years were continually spoiled by almost every classmate or friend he tried to make. His desire to have a place to call "home" was consequential, but something always seemed to get in the way. All he wanted to do was to fit in this world - just like everybody else. His sad experiences may not be unique, but they were relentless and he didn't give up. My heart went out to him every step of the way.

Friday, May 23, 2008

It's Not About The Bike

I thought I knew what fear was, until I heard the words You have cancer. Real fear came with an unmistakable sensation: it was as though all my blood started flowing in the wrong direction. My previous fears, fear of not being liked, fear of being laughed at, fear of losing my money, suddenly seemed like small cowardices. Everything now stacked up differently: the anxieties of life --- a flat tire, losing my career, a traffic jam --- were reprioritized into need versus want, real problem as opposed to minor scare. A bumpy plane ride was just a bumpy plane ride, it wasn't cancer.

One definition of "human" is as follows: characteristic of people as opposed to God or animal or machines, especially susceptible to weakness, and therefore showing the qualities of man. Athletes don't tend to think of themselves in these terms; they're too busy cultivating the aura of invincibility to admit to being fearful, weak, defenseless, vulnerable, or fallible, and for that reason neither are they especially kind, considerate, merciful, benign, lenient, or forgiving, to themselves or anyone around them. But as I sat in my house alone that first night, it was humbling to be so scared. More than that, it was humanizing. (pp. 73-74)

It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life by Lance Armstrong with Sally Jenkins is a book not about bike racing but rather about "survivorship". Lance Armstrong begins with his younger days when he first discovered cycling. He was cocky and headstrong about what he wanted to accomplish. He was an up and coming athlete in the world of cycling and he had his sights on winning the Tour. But suddenly his life came to a complete halt when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. After facing the facts about his prognosis, he fought to beat the disease and in the process re-evaluated what he wanted out of life. Armstrong then tells of his recovery physically, mentally, and emotionally as he struggled to once again rejoin the sport of cycling. As the cover states: Winner of the Tour de France, Cancer Survivor, Husband, Father, Son, Human Being. Very well put.

The book covers Lance Armstrong's life as a young boy through his first win at the Tour de France. It also details his marriage to Kristin (Kik) and the conception and birth of his son Luke. He introduces many people who influenced his life in cycling. And, of course, Armstrong speaks highly of the love and support that his mother Linda has given him throughout his entire life. He starts with a very egotistical air about himself and ends in a very humbling tone. He describes many of the details about fighting his cancer and about the survivorship afterwards that most people are not aware of. And he gives hope to others through his accomplishment in returning to cycling and winning the Tour de France as well as establishing the Lance Armstrong Foundation, a charity to help the fight against cancer.

I very much enjoyed this biography and found it very reader friendly in its style and story. I learned a lot about Lance Armstrong that I did not already know. He was never a winner of the Tour de France prior to his cancer; rather, he was just beginning his world career at the time of his diagnosis. His cancer was much more advanced than I was aware, for it had spread to his lungs and brain. Also, his struggles back into cycling, and into life in general, gave me a new perspective on cancer survivors and what they endure after they conquer their disease.

It's Not About the Bike is not only for cycling fans but also for those who have been touched by cancer in some way. It is an easy reading biography that I highly recommend.

# 8 A Walk in the Woods (Bryson)

Bill Bryson with his college buddy, Stephen Katz, take on the Appalachian Trail (AT) without much experience in the great American outdoors. The desired outcome was to complete the 2,100+ mile trail that traverses Georgia to Maine.

Traveling on the AT with Bryson and Katz was the highlight of the book, while the other half was the preparation and history of the AT, which was dispersed throughout the book. The history was interesting (it really was), but I was so entralled with getting back to walking the trail with the guys that I didn't care to hear the history.

Ultimately, the expedition was filled with witty and comical comments, along with some blunders and eye-opening experiences. Katz, being a one-of-a-kind character, together with Bryson, made quite a team. I could have listened to their conversations forever.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid (raidergirl3)

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson

I haven't laughed out loud while reading a book in quite a while, but Bryson certainly tickled my funny bone with this book. It says memoir, but it is just as much a look at the good old days, the 1950s in America. Bryson makes the argument that the 1950s in Des Moines, Iowa were the best time ever! I loved how Bryson used the exaggerated memory of youth to describe events - there were 800 kids outside, everyday. Part of it is how we always exaggerate when remembering our youth - the scab he nurtured that was one and three quarters inches thick-, so maybe that's why the old days were the best times.

Bryson alternates between his childhood and family, amusingly exaggerated, with the detailed research I associate with Bryson to explain America during times - the economy, the world, Communism and the threat of atomic bombs, and the role of farming in Iowa. He sneaked facts and information into his narrative and left me with an understanding of how we came from the good old days, with the slower pace and easier life, to the fast paced hectic life now.

I grew up in the 1970s and life certainly had changed, but I can see the same relative amount of change today from my childhood. I felt many parallels to Bryson's life: I too led a very happy childhood, nothing traumatic ever happened, I spent the summer outdoors with 800 other neighbourhood children, and the Saturday afternoon matinee was still going on in the 1970s. This was a great read and lots of fun, but also an informative look at how America has changed since 1951.

Laughing Without An Accent - Wendy's Book Review

Glimpses of shared humanity make it so hard to kill others. -From Laughing Without An Accent, page 219-

And if it's one thing I hope we Iranians have imparted, it is the closeness of extended family, not because we all get along perfectly, but because we know that we all benefit emotionally from maintaining those ties. -From Laughing Without An Accent, page 160-

Firoozeh Dumas has written a very funny, immensely insightful memoir about growing up as an Iranian living in America. Dumas immigrated to America at the age of seven with her mother, father and brother and so retains memories of both her childhood in the small Iranian town of Abadan as well as her youth in California.

Laughing Without An Accent is Dumas' second novel (she published Funny in Farsi in 2003 to rave reviews). It is a collection of vignettes which give the reader insight into the melding of cultures and the struggles (often humorous) of immigrants living in the United States. Her stories reflect the difference between the generations in how immigrants adapt to life in another culture - and her affectionate and hilarious reflections on her parents were some of my favorite parts of the book, such as when Dumas and her French husband host Christmas at their home in San Francisco:
My parents always buy wrapping paper on sale, paying attention only to the pretty colors. As Francois held his stack of gifts, all emblazoned with "Happy Birthday!" and "Congratulations, Graduate!" he looked a bit puzzled. A steep learning curve lay head of him. -From Laughing Without An Accent, page 97-

Dumas' memoir strikes just the right balance between lightheartedness and reflection on deeper issues. When she shares that "the only time I felt like a complete foreigner was in college," the reader sympathizes. Likewise, her recollections of the Iranian Hostage Crisis and how it impacted her family filled me with dismay at the prejudice towards immigrants which came about as a result of that event.

Witty, warm and compassionate - Laughing Without An Accent is a memoir worth reading.


Friday, May 16, 2008

# 7 Maus I: A Survivor's Tale (Spiegelman)

Vladek Spiegelman's tale of surviving the Holocaust was written by his son, Art, through unique comic graphics depicting the Jews as mice, the Germans cats, the Poles pigs, the French frogs, and the Americans dogs. The book is told in the form of Art interviewing his father, Vladek.

A Holocaust story is heartbreaking no matter how it is told and comic form does not change that fact. Vladek's story is very familiar, yet it still has its own nuances. Understandably so, the aftermath of such terror is ingrained in his being, thus affecting his relationships.

This was another positive experience in graphic novels for me, however, I was distracted by the characters. I understand the use of such characters and they may have added an aspect to the story that wouldn't be achieved by using something else, but I still would have preferred people. Vladek's relationships are edgy and somewhat awkward to watch. That certainly attests to Art's ability to convey his thoughts through comics and a few words.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Zookeeper's Wife - Wendy's Review

One of the most remarkable things about Antonina was her determination to include play, animals, wonder, curiosity, marvel, and a wide blaze of innocence in a household where all dodged the ambient dangers, horrors, and uncertainties. That takes a special stripe of bravery rarely valued in wartime. -From The Zookeeper’s Wife, page 166-

Diane Ackerman is a poet and naturalist who has written a moving, true account of heroism. Set in Warsaw during WWII, The Zookeeper’s Wife is the story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski who managed the Warsaw Zoo and took advantage of the Nazi’s obsession with genetic engineering (to bring extinct animals back to life) to hide Jews within the walls and cages of the zoo during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Their story spans the years from 1939, with the invasion of the Nazis into Warsaw, through 1945 when Poland was liberated. Ackerman describes the terror of the initial invasion through Antonina’s eyes with a poet’s flair:

On the rare occasions she ventured out, she entered a film-like war, with yellow smoke, pyramids of rubble, jagged stone cliffs where buildings once stood, wind-chased letters and medicine vials, wounded people, and dead horses with oddly angled legs. But nothing more unreal than this: hovering overhead, what looked at first like snow but didn’t move like snowflakes, something delicately rising and falling without landing. Eerier than a blizzard, a bizarre soft cloud of down feathers from the city’s pillows and comforters gently swirled above the buildings. -From The Zookeeper’s Wife, page 59-

The Zookeeper’s Wife is large in scope, exposing the ingenuity and daring of the Polish Underground and Resistance movements in which Jan was deeply involved, and extending to the individual acts of bravery which happened daily within the confines of the Warsaw ghetto. One of the more touching stories which Ackerman brings to her readers is that of Janusz Korczak - a pediatrician and writer - who dedicated himself to the orphans living within the Ghetto. When faced with the choice to escape to safety, Zorczak instead boarded a train to Treblinka and certain death in order to provide comfort to the nearly 200 children being deported.

Anticipating their calamity and fright when deportation day came (August 6, 1942), he joined them aboard the train bound for Treblinka, because, he said, he knew his presence would calm them - “You do not leave a sick child in the night, and you do not leave children at a time like this.” -From The Zookeeper’s Wife, page 185-

Ackerman’s gift is in showing the beauty and courage of people faced with unspeakable horror. She weaves the story of the zoo animals into the daily challenges faced by the individuals who hid among them. The healing power of animals is evident, as is the amazing relationship which Antonina had with them.

This book was difficult to read at times - the cruelty of the Nazis, the devastation of the zoo and most of its animals, the personal stories which unfold. It is almost unbearable to contemplate - and yet, written with sensitivity and skill, the book also exposes the goodness which came from one of the most horrible times in our history.


Have You Found Her - Wendy's Review

And every week there was the unspoken question behind it, the one I did’nt know enough to ask myself - Have you found her yet? The one who reminds you of you? -From Have You Found Her, page 22-

Janice Erlbaum is in her mid-30s and decides to volunteer at a shelter for homeless girls - the same shelter she lived in almost twenty years before. She doesn’t fully understand her motivations, and she immediately breaks the rules for volunteers by choosing favorites, giving gifts and eventually befriending the troubled Samantha. Have You Found Her is Erlbaum’s story of that year and what she discovers…not just about Samantha (who is more ill than anyone can imagine), but about herself.

This memoir is a disturbing read, and ultimately one which is heart breaking. Erlbaum is a talented writer, slowly revealing Samantha’s problems and her (Erlbaum’s) underlying issues about motherhood, co-dependency and escapism through drugs. She builds tension with some subtle foreshadowing and the book unwinds with a sense of doom. Long before the final secret is revealed, the reader knows to expect disaster. Luckily, the sadness is balanced with a sense of fulfillment which Erlbaum finds with her domestic partner, Bill - a man who shines between the pages as a person of hope and stability in an uncertain world.

To say I enjoyed Have You Found Her seems inappropriate - who could enjoy the gradual unraveling of a young girl’s life, the sense of futility and lost hope that invades the prose? But despite this, I couldn’t put this book down. I felt compelled to turn the pages, to understand the despair which drives mental illness, to find out how it all would end.

Janice Erlbaum has written a memoir which will stimulate discussion among parents of teenagers, and those who work with disturbed or drug addicted children. Brutally honest and revealing, this is a book I can recommend.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Notes from a Small Island

I'm lost! Please hand me a road map! I just could not get into the travelogue memoirs of Bill Bryson in his recommended and notable book Notes from a Small Island. I read the first seven chapters (approximately 80 pages) and felt more lost than Bryson did when he first landed in England. I'm sorry, but I barely remember what I read. What I do remember is that he was revisiting his original travels in England. I also remember a lot of dialogue about roads, hotels, food, and weather. That's about it. I found the book uninteresting and a bit rambling for my tastes.

I am listing Notes from a Small Island as a DNF for this challenge. I will choose an alternate selection later in the month to replace this book.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper

Author: Diablo Cody
Reason for Reading: In Their Shoes Reading Challenge

Also posted at Bold. Blue. Adventure.

The book is about how Diablo Cody (the genius behind Juno) went from working a normal 9-5 job at a copy-ad agency to becoming a stripper. At the time she impulsively switched careers, she was living in Minnesota, my home state. So I knew the book was set in Minnesota, and of course I knew it was about stripping, but I was perhaps a bit naive about the sex industry, since my closest encounter with it is walking past an upscale strip joint on the way to a favorite Irish pub. So that's my excuse as to why I was reading a book about a stripper. Naivete.

I am naive no more. After she is finally burnt out with stripping, Diablo describes the stripping scene as:

"Hundreds of girls on the floor at some clubs, all reduced to begging dogs for an army of smug little emperors. The rules of attraction were reversed at a strip club. Girls that could halt midday traffic at Nicollet Mall were rejected by fat guys wearing Zubaz. Joe Punchcard with $20 could toy with several dancers over the course of an afternoon, finally selecting the one who'd receive the dubious privilege of entertaining him for three and a half minutes.... It's like a girl buffet."

Now granted, throughout most of the book Diablo finds stripping hard work but a definite thrill. She is drawn to an "Amateur Night" sign at a seedy dive and first gets a taste. Soon she finds herself working 2 nights a week at Schiek's (incidently the very same upscale strip joint that I walk past on the way to the pub) while still holding down her regular job. Eventually she quits her day job and gets into stripping full time, eventually working at the peep show in Sex World (another Minneapolis institution that I've driven past frequently).

So what is the book about? (besides stripping of course). It's a fish-out-of-water story. It's about the various people, some funny, some nice, some disgusting, that Diablo encountered while stripping. It's about what actually goes on behind the scenes at the strip clubs. It's about her journey from seeing stripping as her last chance to rebel against convention to finally burning out and leaving the business just as suddenly as she entered it. Diablo is a very funny, sarcastic writer.

"At a strip joint... a new girl might as well don veal underwear and dance the Watusi through a gauntlet of jackals. Most veteran strippers are punch-drunk on Haterade and they'd sooner dredge their Vuitton clutch in a cow pie before mustering a pixel of common courtesy toward their fellow woman."

Throughout the book, Diablo continues to try and explain what made her stick with stripping. The main things are the money and just getting a thrill out of doing something as un-normal as her life up to this point has been normal.

She doesn't romanticize stripping or shy away from showing what it is really like. This was just my take, but her descriptions of how the whole thing worked made me more sad than anything. As Diablo quickly learned, the line between strippers and prostitutes is thin at times. The best money is made by taking customers to private booths and simulating sex. While strippers can make a great deal of money in a night, they pay a large cut to the house. She describes meeting the owner of one of the stripjoints and realizing that the outlandish cuts she's been paying out have been lining his pocket much more than her own. Though she never uses the word exploitation in her book, it was clear from her book that it is the whole premise of a strip club.

Do I recommend this book? Yes and no. Definitely no if anything in my review made you squeamish, because I have not even come close to describing some of the most graphic parts of her book. Yes, if you like Diablo Cody's sense of humor in Juno and if the premise is appealing to you. For the second book review in a row, I can't possibly hope to rate this one accurately. I thought it was excellently written, but the subject matter got to me after a while. Despite that, I will say that I'm glad I read it.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Chasing the Flame by Samantha Power

I read a great biography of Sergio Vieira de Mello, a UN official, recently. My review is up if you're interested!