Nina's Reading Blog

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Archive for the ‘Autobiography’ Category

Life Is but a Dream: A Memoir of Living with Illness

Posted by nliakos on April 3, 2017

by Garet Spiese (iUniverse 2017)

Garet “Peggy” Spiese grew up in rural Pennsylvania, the daughter of devout Christians. In 1964, her life changed when she was diagnosed with a life-threatening liver disease. Her parents were told that the illness was fatal, and that she had only a few months to live. She was thirteen.

Peggy’s parents drew on their faith in God and surrounded their daughter with love and life. Peggy herself refused to give up hope. As she passed each new deadline pronounced by her doctors, the months turned into years; Peggy graduated from high school, went to college, became a performer, fell in love, and got married. Through it all, she battled ill health and nasty side effects of the medications that were helping keep her alive, but she insisted on living her life as fully as she could under the circumstances. In her late forties, she finally had a liver transplant, which while not a complete cure, enabled her to imagine a future with a normal lifespan, if not a completely normal life. She was 66 when she wrote the book, still battling various challenges to her health, but looking forward to the future with her husband.

I was inspired by Peggy’s fortitude in the face of her many challenges. She describes doctors who were insensitive to the point of being cruel, strange alternative treatments to which she submitted uncomplainingly, and horrific episodes of pain. But she also had a family whose support never wavered, dear friends and a loving husband, care providers who comforted her when she lost hope, and an indomitable will to live.

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Persepolis

Posted by nliakos on September 25, 2016

by Marjane Satrapi (L’Association, Collection Ciboulette, combined edition published in 2007; ISBN 978-2844142405 [4 volumes originally published separately between 2000 and 2003])

Published in English in 2007 by Pantheon; ISBN 9780375714832.

I’ve seen this called a graphic novel, but it isn’t a novel. It’s a graphic autobiography, written by an Iranian woman in her twenties, telling the story of her life in pre- and  post-revolutionary Iran and also in Vienna, where her parents sent her to study for four years in high school because they were afraid her penchant for getting into trouble and her independent streak would end badly for her.

I read it in the original French, which was not difficult; the style is conversational but without too much slang. Perhaps the simple black and white illustrations (also by Satrapi, who studied art at university in Tehran) provided enough context to make guessing the meaning of the occasional unfamiliar word or expression easier.

Satrapi does not mince words, nor does she try to make herself look good. She includes her failed romances, unkindnesses, rudeness, and many cases of poor judgment on her part. Volume 3, which recounts the story of her wild years in Vienna, made me cringe in horror. She falls in with a wild crowd, smokes, drinks, takes drugs, sleeps around, lives on the streets and ends up in a hospital (without which, I think she would have died). Maybe not all that surprising for a rebellious teenage girl living on her own in a foreign country far from her parents, but scary. Only the Iran-Iraq war could have made her parents think she would be better off in Austria without supervision.

After Vienna, she returns to Tehran, depressed, and not surprisingly, has difficulty re-integrating into her native culture, which has been rendered schizophrenic by the Islamic revolution. She even tries to end her life, but her failed suicide attempt convinces her that she is meant to go on living. She finds a boyfriend, whom she eventually marries (but later divorces), enrolls at university, and reads widely. Eventually, she decides to leave Iran to live in France, realizing that she will never be able to control herself enough to stay out of trouble in Iran.

For those readers who have no idea about Iranian culture or history, this book is an excellent introduction as well as a great story. I know many Iranians; they were the first large group of students I had when I starting teaching ESL in the Washington area in 1974. I’ve also read a fair amount about Persian culture and know a little (but not much) about Persian history, so there was a lot that was not new to me in the book. However, I learned many new things–for example, that Reza Shah (father of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the Shah I remember) was an illiterate army officer before the British used him to overthrow the Qajar emperor (from whom Marjane Satrapi is descended).

The thing that surprised me the most is that Satrapi’s parents and other relatives were not arrested following the publication of the book(s)! She goes into great detail about their politics.

Persepolis is really a coming-of-age story (Bildungsroman). It’s too bad Marjane had to suffer so much on the way to adulthood, and it must have taken enormous courage for her to write and draw her story for public consumption. Since she had the courage to write it, we should have the courage to read it, even though parts of it are difficult.

By the way, Persepolis was made into an animated film  in 2007, with Satrapi as co-director with Vincent Paronnaud. You can watch a trailer here. I think the story would be even more appealing with animation. I am not a fan of graphic books; I find the images rather distracting and not necessary. But I think I will enjoy the film.

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I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced

Posted by nliakos on September 13, 2016

by Nujood Ali, with Delphine Minoui; translated by Linda Coverdale (Broadway Paperbacks, 2010; ISBN 978-0-307-58967-5)

Nujood Ali was a child of 9 or 10 (she does not know her birthdate) in 2008, living in poverty in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. Unable to feed his family, her underemployed, khat-chewing father arranged for her to marry a man from their ancestral village.  He claimed that the man (who was about 30 years old) had pledged “not to touch” her until a year after she got her period. This promise was quickly forgotten, and Nujood was brutally raped the night they arrived at her husband’s family home in the village, which was far from Sana’a and almost completely inaccessible. That night, and the next night, and the next. . . . despite her pleas and screams, despite her attempts to run away and hide from the man she began to call “the monster.” She was in constant pain and felt “dirty inside”. She thought of nothing but how to escape this horrible life and return to her family and her school.

Nujood got her chance on a rare visit to her family in Sana’a. She ran away and went to the courthouse, where she somehow managed to be seen by a sympathetic judge by the name of Abdo. Judge Abdo was appalled when he realized that this little pre-pubescent girl was married and suffering the worst kind of abuse. At that time in Yemen, girls could not legally marry before the age of fifteen; but according to the book, in rural Yemen, this law was frequently broken. Nujood’s case was not at all unusual. What was unusual is that Nujood refused to submit to her fate. She managed to escape; she found her way to the court (taking unfamiliar buses and a taxi), she insisted on seeing a judge, and she persisted until the divorce was granted. Following her historic divorce, the age of marriage in yemen was raised, other Yemeni girls found the courage to seek divorces from older and abusive husbands, and even an eight-year-old Saudi girl was granted a divorce. Nujood Ali is a role model and a hero for many women and girls. For herself, Nujood simply wanted to return to her family and to go back to school, where she was resumed her third-grade studies, but now with a specific career goal in mind: to become a lawyer like Shada Nasser, who represented her in court, helping other girls and women to win their rights. Fortunately, the income from this book has enabled her family to have a somewhat better life; at least, the children are no longer reduced to begging on the street.

Young adults and English language learners should be able to understand the fairly simple style and vocabulary in the book, and they will be inspired by the simple courage of this young child who refused to deny her humanity in order to follow the customs of her culture.

 

Posted in Autobiography, Children's and Young Adult, Non-fiction, Recommended for ESL or EFL Learners | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Posted by nliakos on September 12, 2016

by Benjamin Franklin (Dover Thrift Editions, copyright 1996, ISBN 978-0-486-29073-7; originally published posthumously by J. P Lippincott, 1868)

I don’t remember having read Franklin’s Autobiography before, but it should be on all Americans’ required reading list. I bought my Dover Thrift Edition for a whopping $2 at the Benjamin Franklin Museum in Philadelphia earlier this summer (B&N and Amazon both list it at $3.60.). It has 136 pages of small, closely set type, and lacks the annotations that would have been helpful in establishing and explaining the context for the people and events described by Franklin, but even lacking these, it is fascinating reading and appeals even to a modern reader who has forgotten much (and never knew a lot to begin with).

The Autobiography began as a letter written to Franklin’s son with the aim of explaining how Franklin’s own success in life was achieved, in the hope that his descendants might “find some of [the ways he achieved success] suitable to their own situations, and therefore fit to be imitated.”  He describes his early life, how he became a printer, his escape from Boston to Philadelphia at the tender age of seventeen, and his rise to prominence in the colony of Pennsylvania. He does not omit behavior of which he was not proud; for example, he writes how when he went to England, he never wrote to his girlfriend, Miss Deborah Read; believing he had forgotten her (as he probably had), she married someone else, with whom she was unhappy. Later, after that marriage ended, she and Franklin became close again, and he married her in 1730. He wrote, “We throve together, and have ever mutually endeavor’d to make each other happy. Thus I corrected that great erratum as well as I could.” Later in life, Franklin, by then a kind of elder statesman, was persuaded to finish and update the autobiography. He then added Parts Three and Four, but was unable to finish them before he died, so the Revolutionary War and its aftermath are unfortunately not included.

It is astonishing to think of Franklin’s many achievements: Philadelphia’s fire department, public library, hospital, the academy that eventually became the University of Pennsylvania, the American Philosophical Society… He published a newspaper (the Pennsylvania Gazette) and almanac, printed paper money for the colony, served in the colony’s militia and supplied the British army with provisions during the French and Indian War, was Pennsylvania’s ambassador to England, transformed the American postal system, invented the Franklin stove, bifocals, counterfeit-proof paper money, and more…. The list goes on and on (not all of it included in the Autobiography, which he never managed to finish; see this timeline for a complete list). I was reminded of Ayla, the character in Jean M. Auel’s Earth’s Children series, who domesticated the first dog and horse, invented surgical stitches and a host of other things, and almost single-handedly created human civilization. Only Franklin was a real person; he actually did all those things.

Franklin considered himself an honest, hard-working man of integrity who never tried to profit from his position of influence–which is why, he claims, he was able to wield so much influence; people respected him and trusted his judgment. He worked hard at being a virtuous person. He avoided alcohol, meat, gambling and other vices. If you read his Autobiography, you will wish you could have met this extraordinary man.

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When Breath Becomes Air

Posted by nliakos on August 16, 2016

by Paul Kalanithi (Random House 2016; ISBN 9780812988406)

Paul Kalanithi was a 26-year-old neurosurgeon in his last year of residency, with a bright future ahead of him, when he was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. In the little time remaining, he worked until he was no longer able to do so, and he wrote this book. Abraham Verghese, who knew Kalanithi slightly, wrote the Foreword.

The first part, “In Perfect Health I Begin”, chronicles Kalanithi’s early life, his decision to become a doctor, his time in medical school, and his marriage to a fellow medical student. I like memoirs, and I’m interested in how people become doctors, so I liked this part. (But I still don’t get how they are transformed from naive first-years into residents performing operations.)

The second part, “Cease Not till Death”, describes Kalanithi’s experience as a patient in the same hospital where he works (then used to work). He explores his evolving understanding of life and death. As the cancer inexorably destroys his body, he examines his relationships with his doctors and with his wife, describes his changing states of mind, and shares the joy he experiences cuddling and playing with his daughter, born eight months before his death in 2014. There are plenty of lessons to gained in this part. In some ways it is similar to Tuesdays with Morrie and The Last Lecture of Randy Pausch. It is true that thoughtful people facing their own imminent death have much to tell those of us who can still pretend that we are immortal–at least, our own ends are likely far enough in the future that we need not confront them. We avoid thinking about death until we are forced to think about it.

Rounding out the book is an Epilogue written by Lucy Kalanithi, detailing her husband’s last weeks and days. That part made me cry.

Like Tuesdays with Morrie, this would be a good book to reread every so often as a reminder to cherish each day we are given and each loved one with whom we share our journey through life.

Advanced English language learners will enjoy this book, which is beautifully written and also quite short, as the author did not live to finish it.

 

 

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Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening

Posted by nliakos on June 26, 2016

by John Elder Robison (Spiegel & Grau 2016; ISBN 978-0812996890)

I recently read and blogged about Look Me in the Eye by John Elder Robison. It turns out that he also wrote two other books before this one came out this year: Be Different and Raising Cubby. (Must read those too.) I am fascinated by his descriptions of life with autism, much as I was by Temple Grandin‘s and Daniel Tammet‘s. It’s like reading about how life is lived in an alien culture; if you’ve read much of this blog, you know how cultural differences fascinate me. Autistic people’s way of experiencing the world is so different from most people’s, and their unique abilities are so remarkable.

This book briefly covers some of the autobiographical material in Look Me in the Eye, but what it is really about is Robison’s participation in a research project at Beth Israel Hospital near Boston in 2008. The study, by neurologist Alvaro Pascual-Leone and psychologist Lindsay Oberman, explored the effects of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) on people with autism. (TMS involves “using an electromagnetic field to induce signals in the outer layer of the brain.”) The goal of the study was to assess whether TMS might be able to increase autistic people’s emotional intelligence–their ability to read emotional signals in others, which they are famously bad at.

The upshot of the research study is that in Robison’s case, the TMS did radically transform his ability to sense emotions in other people, which in turned engendered major changes in his behavior and human relationships–not all of which were positive. He writes openly about his post-treatment experiences, what he learned from the study, his fears and insecurities, his relationships with family and friends and researchers, and his feelings when his new-found abilities fade with time.

Robison also considers the question of whether using therapies like TMS to “cure” autism is in fact a good idea. He admits that the loneliness and bullying he endured as a child and his difficulties with human relationships as an adult were painful, but considers that the special abilities that enable him to understand machines better than other people provide a kind of counter-balance to this pain. He writes, “Sometimes, a touch of disability makes us great.” (p.274) Many of humankind’s quantum leaps forward have been made possible by the minds of people who, when we look back, seem to have been on the autism spectrum: Einstein, Beethoven, da Vinci, Mozart, and others. What if their eccentricities had been “fixed” when they were children? Would they have gone on to greatness anyway?

I strongly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in brain science and/or autism.

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A Street Cat Named Bob & The World According to Bob

Posted by nliakos on June 9, 2016

by James Bowen (A Street Cat Named Bob, and How He Saved My Life: Thomas Dunne Books 2012 – ISBN 978-1-250-02946-1; The World According to Bob, Thomas Dunne Books 2013; ISBN 978-1-250-04623-1)

I happened on these two memoirs while cruising the biography shelves in the public library. They are really like one book, so I will review them together.

Apparently, Bob the London Street Cat is very famous. If you search for Bob the street cat on YouTube, you will find lots of videos about James and Bob. Somehow, I had never heard about them, so it was all new to me. James Bowen was a recovering heroin addict living in a small subsidized flat in London while he tapered off of methadone in 2007. He was living from hand to mouth, making a little money as a street musician, with few friends and a very poor opinion of himself. Somewhat reluctantly, he took in an injured young ginger tomcat whom he called Bob. In the end, it was Bob who rescued James, not the other way around. Bob is a very unusual cat in many ways: he was fiercely loyal to James from the beginning; he travels around London on a leash or sitting on James’ shoulders; he doesn’t mind wearing scarves and jackets (made for him by his many admirers) or taking baths. Is this cat for real???

In addition to being about Bob and his extraordinary relationship with James, the book describes the strange life of a recovering addict and sometime homeless person. Bowen has written honestly about his life as a street musician and later a magazine seller, barely scraping by, living from hand to mouth. It is hard for most of his readers to imagine living as he did for many years.

A Street Cat Named Bob describes how Bowen found Bob, how Bob enchanted passers-by into giving James money when he was busking and buying The Big Issue magazine, how James finally got off methadone, and how he was reunited with his mother in Australia. The World According to Bob reprises some of the material from the earlier book and also describes how the first book came to be written, and how its surprisingly warm reception changed Bowen’s life.

If you are a cat-lover, you are going to love these books! And even if you aren’t, you might love them. Bob is definitely not your ordinary cat. In fact, in many ways, he behaves more like a dog (like when he attacked a would-be mugger who tried to steal Bowen’s rucksack on a dark street one night).

And apparently, there’s going to be a movie about James and Bob, starring Bob himself, coming out this year.

 

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2 Memoirs of Abuse: My Lobotomy and A Stolen Life

Posted by nliakos on April 11, 2016

My Lobotomy: A Memoir by Howard Dully and Charles Fleming (Crown 2007; ISBN 978-0-307-38126-2)

A Stolen Life: A Memoir by Jaycee Dugard (Simon & Schuster 2011; ISBN 978-1-4516-2918-7)

I sometimes circumvent my ever-lengthening To Read lists and just cruise the biography shelves at the public library. Dugard and Dully must have been next to each other on the shelf, so I picked them up together. Coincidentally, both describe the abuse suffered by the authors as children, abuse that in both cases lingered on into their adulthood. That is why I have chosen to blog about them together.

Jaycee Dugard is the more famous of the two. She was eleven when she was abducted on her way to school in 1991 and kept prisoner by her deranged abductor, Phillip Garrido, and his wife Nancy for eighteen years, during which she bore two daughters fathered by and delivered by Phillip Garrido. She describes her life living in two sheds and a tent in the Garridos’ back yard, alternating between narrating what happened to her and reflecting on the meaning of what happened, and why she reacted as she did (for example, why she did not try to escape when she had the opportunity). Her reflections are informed by the counseling she has received since her liberation. I was alternately appalled by her descriptions of sexual and psychological abuse and amazed by her refusal to let it fill her with hate. Although she describes herself as meek and compliant by nature, Jaycee Dugard is not a victim. She is a survivor.

As I was reading, I thought of the child brides and young girls sold into sexual slavery in many countries around the world. Like Jaycee Dugard, they are sexual objects for older men who repeatedly rape them. There is usually no escape (other than suicide), because the entire society in which they live assumes that they have no right to choose their sexual partners (or to decline to have any sexual partners). If Jaycee Dugard was lucky in any way, it is that when Phillip Garrido stupidly took his wife, Jaycee, and her two daughters on a visit to his parole officer and Jaycee was finally able to reveal her true identity–she had been forbidden to say or write her name during the 18 years of her captivity–her society and her family welcomed her back with open arms. In a society where girls are forced to marry their rapists to uphold their families’ honor, there is no rescue.

Howard Dully is a survivor of another kind of abuse. After his mother died when he was four, his father married a woman who took an active dislike to him. She withheld affection from him, verbally abused him, punished him frequently, and when he was twelve years old, lobbied hard for the controversial “treatment” championed by Dr. Walter Freeman–a transorbital lobotomy, in which Freeman inserted an icepick behind Howard’s eyeball and then stirred it around in his brain. Perhaps she was hoping that he would die (many did) or be transformed into a vegetable whom she could then institutionalize. Miraculously, Howard survived the lobotomy, changed but still functional. He spent the remainder of his adolescence at home at the mercy of his stepmother, in juvenile detention, in an insane asylum for adults, and in a boarding school for special education. Not surprisingly, he did not acquire the skills he needed to function as an independent adult in these places. He had always been a somewhat difficult child (he speculates that he probably had ADHD), and as a young adult, he continued a life of petty crime and refusal to take responsibility for his actions. He married, fathered a child, and raised a stepson. He abused drugs and alcohol. He separated from his first wife and through her, met another woman who was able to give him the love and support he needed to make something of his life. Despite all that he had been through, Howard Dully is basically a good person, and his second wife Barbara must have recognized that goodness. She encouraged him to return to school, to get a responsible job, and to raise his children responsibly.

Dully always wondered why his parents had given Dr. Freeman permission to perform the lobotomy. When he was in his forties, he realized that the people who might have the answers were getting older, and some, like his stepmother Lou, died, so he began to research Freeman’s career (the man kept voluminous records) and his own story, which eventually led him to Sound Portraits and NPR. In 2005, Dave Isay and Piya Kochhar made a radio documentary about Dully titled My Lobotomy. The book came out two years later.

Howard Dully could easily have titled his story A Stolen Life. His life (at least between the ages of four and fifty) was also stolen from him–by the stepmother who unaccountably despised him, by the father who would not protect him, by the doctor who mutilated his brain, and by the many people he encountered during his years of incarceration and petty crime who might have helped him but didn’t–no less than was Jaycee Dugard’s. Yet today, Dully harbors no hatred and claims that he is finally at peace, having discovered to his satisfaction that he never did anything so bad as to warrant the treatment he received. He and his wife live in San Jose, where he works as a bus driver. A victim of abuse and neglect for most of his childhood and adolescence, Howard Dully, too, is a survivor. His story shows how crucial it is for social workers and others who recognize child abuse to reach out to help its victims. Had the representatives of the state of California acted more responsibly in the case of Howard Dully, his rehabilitation could have taken place that much sooner.

Posted in Autobiography, Memoir, Non-fiction | Tagged: , , , , | 5 Comments »

Even After All This Time: A Story of Love, Revolution, and Leaving Iran

Posted by nliakos on April 4, 2016

by Afschineh Latifi (ReganBooks 2005; ISBN 0-06-074533-9)

Afschineh Latifi’s story is both tragic and inspiring. Born into a well-to-do family in Teheran, whose father served in the last Shah’s army, she was ten years old when the Ayatollah Khomeini took over the Iranian government. Her father was suddenly an “enemy of God.” He was arrested, imprisoned, and finally executed. This fact transformed Latifi’s life in many ways. First of all, she adored her father, who was generous and loving with his wife and children. When she was finally able to visit his grave ten years later, she was completely undone by the emotion that it elicited. She was so devastated by his death and by his absence as she was growing up that she was unable to commit herself in marriage to a man whom she loved.

In addition, his death at the hands of the state changed the whole family’s position in their society. Eventually, they were forced to leave Iran, but this was done in stages. First, Afschineh and her older sister Afsaneh were sent to school in Austria and from there went on to the U.S., where they lived with their mother’s brother and were granted refugee status. Their mother and two younger brothers followed about eight years later. Forced to depend on themselves, living in an overcrowded home with relatives who did not really want them to be there, the sisters were forced to grow up quickly. The book describes their schooling, their social isolation, and their eventual independence from their uncle’s family when 18-year-old Afsaneh was granted guardianship of 16-year-old Afschineh. Somehow, they not only survived but flourished in their new country. All four children eventually graduated from college and graduate school and became professionals. What an inspiring story of survival and success!

It’s also very interesting to read what it was like to live through Iran’s revolution in 1979 and the repression that followed it. Like a work of fiction, the book permits us to experience the transformation of this westernized nation into a fundamentalist Islamic state. Though the Latifis are Muslims, the fundamentalist takeover was as shocking to them as it would be to a non-Muslim–incomprehensible, in fact. The father’s stubborn refusal to believe that he would be found guilty of anything led directly to his arrest and execution; they could have left the country, but did not until it was too late.

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Between the World and Me

Posted by nliakos on April 2, 2016

by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Spiegel & Grau 2015; ISBN 978-0-8129-9354-7)

In this three-part essay addressed to his 15-year-old son Samori, Ta-Nehisi Coates considers the condition of being African American in the modern age. His focus is on the physical vulnerability of blackness in a racist nation: how the American culture of violence, and especially violence against blacks, robs black people of their time and energy (spent trying to stay out of the way) but most of all, of their bodies, which can be taken from them (beaten, raped, killed) by “the people who believe themselves to be white” (and equate this with perfect), whom he dubs “the Dreamers”–but the American Dream, if that is what he means, is built on the dead bodies of black people, the plunder of our history.

The danger which haunts Coates is personified by the fate of his college friend, Prince Jones, who was followed by a plain-clothes Prince Georges County police officer (also African-American) through Washington, D.C., and into Virginia, where the officer fatally shot Jones, in  a case of mistaken identity. Jones was in his early twenties, engaged to be married. The officer was not charged with murder and was allowed to continue working as a police officer. In this era of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and others, African-American boys and men killed ostensibly because their killers felt threatened–in this era of Black Lives Matter, Coates details for us all what it actually feels like to grow up and live in the toxic atmosphere of American racism. He points out that race is just a fiction, anyway–an excuse to exploit, to kill, to discard. He comes back again and again to the killing of Prince Jones, as if he were trying to process it. Towards the end, he visits Jones’ mother, a doctor, a woman who clawed her way out of poverty to bring up her children in luxury and privilege–only to find that in the end, none of it mattered. The only thing that mattered was the color of their skin.

As a white person reading this book and feeling Coates’ justified rage, I felt chastened. I would have to agree with Toni Morrison’s comment: “This is required reading.”

(P.S. I wish someone would explain to me how Ta-Nehisi came to be pronounced as if it were spelled Ta-Nehasi.)

 

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