Nina's Reading Blog

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Archive for the ‘Autobiography’ Category

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

Posted by nliakos on May 10, 2018

by J. D. Vance (Harper-Collins 2016)

Those of us who consider ourselves part of the “resistance” to Donald Trump and his GOP supporters often wonder why Trump’s “base”–those voters who are faithful to him, no matter what he says or does–continue to stand by their man–and whether we can bridge the divide between Us and Them and perhaps help them to see reason. Before we try to convince them that they are wrong and we are right and Donald Trump represents a disaster for our country, we should read this book about hillbillies–the “white working class” folks who live in (or originate from) the Appalachian mountains in the Eastern United States. And getting our message across to them won’t be easy, because as described by J. D. Vance (who considers himself a hillbilly although he was mostly raised in southwestern Ohio), they are more different from us than the most exotic Asian or Middle Easterner, African or European.

According to Vance, their honor code of protecting their family above all seems more like something you would find in Sicily than in America. If you insult a hillbilly’s family member, s/he would consider it normal to beat you up or shoot you. Rather than trusting the justice system, hillbillies mete out a harsh justice themselves. And if they criticize “welfare queens”, it’s because abuse of government assistance is so widespread among them that they assume everybody does it.

Vance is of this culture, but he was able to escape the poverty he grew up in and join the educated American middle class. He calls himself “a cultural emigrant.” He joined the Marines (which forced him to grow up and learn to take care of himself) and then went to college and Yale law school. But before that, he gives most of the credit to his grandparents, especially his grandmother “Mamaw”, who partly raised him and always gave him a place to escape to when things got too hard or stressful at home, where his mother alternately fought and then gave in to drug addiction and presented young J.D. and his sister Lindsay with a never-ending parade of boyfriends and husbands. His grandparents pushed him to do well in school and constantly assured him that he could succeed. But he confesses that without them and the safe haven they provided, without his older sister’s loving care, without his four years in the Marines, without any of the many factors that conspired to help him succeed, he couldn’t have done it. His present-day comfortable life would have been out of reach. Thinking about it now, about how close I was to the abyss, gives me chills. I am one lucky son of a bitch. Yet despite all the negative things he sees in his culture of origin, Vance harbors a real appreciation for these people, and a desire to see them do better, as he himself proves is possible.

I always enjoy reading books about foreign cultures, and this culture certainly qualifies, despite its being embedded in the heart of the United States of America.

 

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A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership

Posted by nliakos on May 8, 2018

by James Comey (Flatiron Books 2018)

If you have been paying attention, you already know that James Comey did not unveil any deep dark secrets or smoking guns in the memoir he published after being fired from his position as FBI Director by Donald Trump, four years into a ten-year term. But the reader will learn much about Comey’s own life and career, which touched some of the most notorious cases of the past thirty years (including Whitewater, Martha Stewart, Scooter Libby, Edward Snowden and “the collision between privacy and public safety”, Marc Rich, Abu Ghraib and the so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” (aka torture), David Petraeus, and of course, the notorious Clinton email investigation. As Assistant Attorney General of the Southern District of New York (the ones who are suing the Administration to prevent them from adding a citizenship question to the 2020 Census), as U.S. Attorney in Manhattan under Rudy Giuliani, as Deputy Attorney General and later Acting Attorney General of the U.S., Comey has had a front seat to many if not most of the big cases we’ve all heard about. He dealt with the Mafia, and he dealt with George W. Bush’s barefaced attempt to coerce John Ashcroft, Attorney General and Comey’s boss, to approve extensive surveillance of American citizens by the NSA. It was fascinating to read his retelling of these events.

The book is essentially an autobiography; after an initial chapter on his encounters with La Cosa Nostra, it begins with his childhood (when he was the target of bullies in his Allendale, NJ elementary school (I used to ride horseback in Allendale!). He spent years doing his utmost to avoid those bullies. He credits his parents (“tough, but kind”), some of his teachers, and an unforgettable boss named Harry Howell, with giving him the support and guidance which helped him to become the person he is. There is a marvelous story about how he once spilled 24 gallons of milk on the floor of Howell’s supermarket. He explains, “I stopped abruptly and pushed the hand truck hard upright, heedless of the basic laws of physics. The universe and the milk, of course, were not heedless.” Howell’s low-key reaction to the catastrophe (“Have you learned something? . . . . Good.  Clean it up.”) exemplifies Comey’s idea of “great leadership”.

But Comey was not only the target of bullies; he describes a memorable time when he participated in the humiliation of a nerdy classmate at the College of William and Mary when he was a freshman. But he learned from that experience, too: “Four decades later, I’m still ashamed of myself.” Despite his own experience being bullied and despite the teaching and examples of important adults in his life, he gave in to the temptation to belong to “the group”. Still, he concludes that being bullied made him a better person and instilled in him a hatred of bullies and sympathy for the victims of bullies. (Of course, the reader thinks of Donald Trump, Bully-in-Chief.)

Comey describes his career in public service and his family life. The Comeys had hoped to settle permanently in Richmond, where he worked as Assistant U.S. Attorney under another memorable boss, Helen Fahey. But after the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01, he returned to New York as U.S. Attorney.

Comey writes intelligently and thoughtfully about lying (in a chapter mostly about the Martha Stewart and Scooter Libby cases) and leadership. He writes that he spent a lot of time during his first year as FBI Director traveling around the country and abroad to every field office, where he met and listened to special agents and other employees. It was very important to him that each employee knew how much he valued him or her. Reading about his views on good leadership and how he tried his best to be a good leader, I thought that he must be a fantastic person to work for, able to get the best out of each employee.

Chapter 6, “On the Tracks”, is one of the most fascinating, describing the struggle between the Justice Department and the (second) Bush administration over Project Stellar Wind, a program of citizen surveillance which required the Attorney General’s approval before it could be implemented. Both Comey and Ashcroft opposed the project because they felt it was not within the law. With Ashcroft desperately ill in intensive care at GW Hospital, two White House staffers rushed to the hospital to get him to sign off on the program, but Comey and several of his staff beat them there and in the end, Ashcroft refused to approve it. I remember reading about this in the Washington Post when it happened but not understanding well what had happened. Comey’s chapter explains everything in great detail. It reminds me a little of what happened during the so-called “Saturday Night Massacre” in 1973, and of what could happen if Donald Trump were to fire Robert Mueller or Rod Rosenstein. In such blatant power grabs by a President, the DOJ must function as a check on the White House. If not, then Congress must explore the impeachment option. I never realized that the Card-Gonzalez-Comey-Ashcroft situation very nearly precipitated that kind of crisis in 2004.

Of course, what most readers are itching to get to are the sections which describe Comey’s relationship with Donald Trump, Trump’s attempts to get Comey to pledge loyalty to him, and the horrible way in which Trump fired Comey. This was interesting, but these were also the parts that were quoted and summarized extensively in the media when the book came out, so there was less to learn that was new. However, I was impressed by the detailed description of Comey’s emotional reaction to having to leave the FBI and a job that he loved, just when he was hitting his stride as Director. I was amazed to learn that Trump was nasty enough to want Comey, who was in Los Angeles giving a speech to staffers in the field office there when he learned of his dismissal on TV (he thought it was a joke at first), to have to pay his own way back to Washington while the FBI plane he had flown out on flew home empty. It was Andy McCabe who authorized Comey to return on the FBI plane, and Trump was furious. Not satisfied with dismissing Comey in a horrible, public way, Trump wanted to humiliate him as much as possible by forcing him to fly back on a commercial flight, at his own expense. The mean-spiritedness of the man is astounding.

A few favorite quotes:

Ethical leaders never ask for loyalty. Those leading through fear–like a Cosa Nostra boss–require personal loyalty. Ethical leaders care deeply about those they lead, and offer them honesty and decency, commitment and their own sacrifice.They have a confidence that breeds humility. Ethical leaders know their own talent but fear their own limitations–to understand and reason, to see the world as it is and not as they wish it to be. They speak the truth and know that making wise decisions requires people to tell them the truth. And to get that truth, they create an environment of high standards and deep consideration–“love” is not too strong a word–that builds lasting bonds and makes extraordinary achievement possible. It would never occur to an ethical leader to ask for loyalty.

I say this as someone who has worked in law enforcement for most of my life, and served presidents of both parties. What is happening now is not normal. It is not fake, It is not okay.

There are men and women of good conscience in the United States Congress on both sides of the aisle. . . . But not enough of them are speaking out. They must ask themselves to what, or to whom, they hold a higher loyalty: to partisan interests or to the pillars of democracy? Their silence is complicity–it is a choice–and somewhere deep down they must know that.

The situation offers an opportunity to rebalance power among the three branches of our government, closer to the model the founders intended.

Far from creating a new norm where lying is widely accepted, the Trump presidency has ignited a focus on truth and ethics.

I choose to be optimistic.

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Every Day I Fight

Posted by nliakos on January 2, 2018

by Stuart Scott with Larry Platt (Blue Rider Press 2015)

I can’t remember why I added this book to my To-Read list. I had never heard of Stuart Scott; I never watch ESPN, where he anchored the show SportsCenter. I am not interested in sports, and passages such as the following, common in this book, are unintelligible to me: In 1999, just before announcing that Vince Carter–Tar Heel!–was the runaway Rookie of the Year, I broke down a dunk by him that everyone had been calling a 360-degree throw-down. Only it wasn’t. “I gotta drop some knowledge,” I said, while footage of Vince’s slam played on the screen behind me. “Vince Carter’s late-season 360 dunk was not really a 360. let me show you.” At this, we played a clip of a recent Kobe 360. “Most guys do a true 360–they start to their right, complete the circle, slam it.” Now we played Vince’s. “Vince basically did, like, a 450–he started the other way, went all the way around before ripping the rim.”  Suffice it to say I got none of that. I have never heard of most of the names Scott drops (exceptions: Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan), did not get the sports references, and was befuddled by the African-American dialect he used on screen and sometimes in the narrative.

But Every Day I Fight is fundamentally a memoir of cancer. We get the back story, of how Scott worked his way up to his anchor position at ESPN, his first marriage, the birth of his daughters, and so on. But the focus of the book is his seven-year battle against appendiceal cancer. While undergoing chemotherapy and multiple surgeries, through clean scans and then new growths as the cancer kept coming back in new places, Scott continued to work when he was able and, incredibly, liked to follow bouts of chemotherapy with intense physical workouts, including mixed martial arts, a five-mile “Savage Race” and something called P90X. He insists that this made him feel better and gain weight. It’s not what most people would choose to do after chemo. Through it all, he was motivated by his love for his daughters, Taelor and Sydni. And he was able to bask in their presence as the cancer slowly destroyed his body–living in the now, not focusing on the future he would not have. I was crying as I read the final chapters.

I appreciated Scott’s insights into being a dad, a celebrity, a journalist, and in particular, a cancer patient. For example, he writes that once you have a cancer diagnosis, even if you are found to be “cancer-free”, your life is forever changed: My Buddy Brian wakes up feeling sore in the morning and thinks, “Man, this getting-old thing is a pain.” I wake up feeling sore and think, “Is that cancer? Is it back?”  Towards the end of the book, he writes, Well, when I started writing stuff down, I promised to keep it real, so I’ve gotta confess: I’m feeling that way (sick, tired, and depleted) now, with you. I’ve been filling up these pages with this cancer talk, and it’s gotten to the point where I can’t stand my own voice. I feel repetitive and pathetic and self-centered. . . .

When Scott writes about “keeping it real,” I am reminded of my friend Rhona Hall, who died of cancer in May of last year. Rhona often said to me, “That’s what I like about you, Nina–you always keep it real.”  I hope I will have the integrity and the courage to keep it real with my friends, my family, and myself in the coming years.

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March

Posted by nliakos on December 27, 2017

by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell (Top Shelf Productions 2013 (Book One), 2015 (Book Two), and 20  (Book Three).

The three volumes together comprise this graphic memoir of Congressman John Lewis, an icon of the Civil Rights movement. Book One opens in 2009 as the congressman prepares to attend the inauguration of the nation’s first black President. A woman brings her young sons to his office, and he begins to reminisce…. He recalls his childhood on his family’s farm in Alabama, going to school, hearing about the outcome of Brown Vs. Board of Education of Topeka and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., the Montgomery bus boycott, enrolling in a seminary in Nashville, Tennessee, meeting Dr. King and others in the nascent civil rights movement, and learning about and practicing non-violent resistance in workshops which they then applied in lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville. They were arrested and jailed, but they were finally successful when Mayor West recommended the desegregation of the lunch counters in the city. This was in 1960.

Book Two picks up the story at the end of 1960 and takes it to the March on Washington in August, 1963, through sit-ins at Nashville cafeterias and fast food restaurants, non-violent attempts to integrate movie theaters, and the Freedom Rides of 1961. Lewis describes his involvement with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, which he was chosen to lead in 1963. He talks about Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X, who did not believe in non-violent resistance, as well as the leaders of the non-violent movement: Martin Luther King, Jr.; James Farmer; Diane Nash, and other well-known figures of that era. Of course, the racist southern politicians such as George Wallace and Bull Connor figure as well, and so do the Kennedys and federal agent John Siegenthaler, to whose memory this volume is dedicated.

During one of the Freedom Rides, Walter Bergman, a college professor,  was beaten so badly that he was paralyzed for the remainder of his life. Once, during a sit-in at a restaurant, the staff turned off the lights, locked the protesters inside, and fumigated the restaurant, as if they were exterminating bugs. Lewis writes simply, “We did not die that day, but it was not the last time I thought I saw death.” The courage it took to confront racist hatred, knowing that one could not meet violence with violence, is astonishing. Yet they kept going back for more, and Lewis played a major role in both protesting and in training the protesters.

The last pages of Book Two recall the cowardly bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham which killed four little girls, and Book Three (which, inexplicably and by itself, is this year’s First Year Book at the University of Maryland) opens in the chaos of the burning church (prologue) and then moves on to the other major events of the Civil Rights Movement, in particular the fight for voting rights, culminating in “Bloody Sunday”, the terrible March 7 attack on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, which the marchers  had to cross to continue on to their goal of the capital of Alabama, Montgomery; the symbolic march to the bridge on March 9; and finally the successful march from Selma to Montgomery, March 21-25 1965. The Voting Rights Act was signed into law less than six months later; the rest of the country was appalled at video of the vicious attacks on unarmed, peaceful demonstrators.

2017 is a strange vantage point from which to reflect on those long-ago events. Last year, the Voting Rights Act was essentially gutted by the Supreme Court, and Republican states have already implemented new laws which result in severe restrictions on the ability to vote for citizens of color. Did the Selma-to-Montgomery marchers offer their bodies to be beaten for this?

I guess that making this a graphic novel makes it more appealing to younger people, but frankly, I would have preferred a traditional prose memoir with photographs. I don’t have the patience to try and figure out what the pictures supposedly show. I couldn’t tell the various characters apart–not Lewis, not John Kennedy, not Martin Luther King, Jr. Nobody was recognizable to me, so it was hard to figure out who was speaking. The action wasn’t clear to me, either. For example, on page 121 (Book Two), did a pick-up truck actually hit a child during a protest at the swimming pool in Cairo, Illinois? (I had to google that one.) There are a lot of confusing scenes of mayhem and beating, fire hoses and billy clubs and guns, with onomatopoeia like KRAK, KLOP KLOP KLOP, CL-CLANK, VR_VRMMM, WHAP, KRUNCH, ERT, WHUMP, BLAM, VOOSH, SCREEEEEE, which I guess is appropriate for comic books (but I don’t understand why they have to mangle the spelling)I impatiently read through the text and hardly looked at the illustrations, which were mostly inscrutable to me anyway. I suppose had they been drawn differently, they might have supported the text more, but as it is, it just made me anxious to read Lewis’ more traditional memoir, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement (1998) or Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America (2017). I assume that March may appeal more to younger readers who are unaccustomed to reading an actual book (how snarky of me).

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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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