Nina's Reading Blog

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Archive for the ‘Biography’ Category

Over the Hills and Far Away: The Life of Beatrix Potter

Posted by nliakos on September 30, 2019

by Matthew Dennison (Pegasus 2017)

When my daughter was young, I bought her a stack of Beatrix Potter’s “little books” on sale at Borders. Later, we supplemented them with books on tape (replaced later by CDs) and videos. At 27, she is still enamored of these quirky little tales, as am I, and we both loved the movie Miss Potter, a dramatization of the author/illustrator’s life. I always wondered how much of that was fictionalized and how much was based on fact, so when I saw this book on the biography shelves of my local library, I took it out. It did not disappoint! I learned that the movie was largely accurate; however, Norman Warne’s illness and death were apparently embellished. Warne died of leukemia, not of an illness contracted because he saw Beatrix off on her forced vacation in the rain, as was implied in the film. Beatrix’s girlhood acquaintance with William Heelis, whom she would later marry, is not mentioned in the book and was probably invented by the director. But no matter. The film is wonderful, the book is wonderful, Beatrix Potter’s creations are wonderful. I loved the way Dennison illustrates his book with Potter’s drawings and refers constantly to the various animal characters in the “little books”, relating the stories to the places where she lived and the events in her life. Having read almost all of her oeuvre (I somehow managed to miss The Fairy Caravan–must look for it in the library), these references greatly added to my enjoyment of the biography.

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A Surgeon in the Village: An American Doctor Teaches Brain Surgery in Africa

Posted by nliakos on February 17, 2019

by Tony Bartelme with Catharina Hoek-Ellegala (Beacon Press 2017)

Dilan Ellegala is a Sri Lankan-American neurosurgeon. In this engaging narrative, Tony Bartelme tells how Ellegala escaped the craziness of an academic superstar neurosurgeon career to spend six months in a small village hospital in Tanzania. What he finds there changes his life, his career focus, and his priorities. He realizes early on in his time at Haydom Lutheran Hospital that the constant stream of visiting foreign doctors and medical students has the unfortunate consequence of teaching the Tanzanian staff to doubt their own abilities, to depend upon outside help to do their jobs. Ellegala had an idea: he would teach one of the staff, a young man named Emmanuel Mayegga, how to do simple brain surgery. Mayegga was not a doctor, just an Assistant Medical Officer (AMO), so this might seem overly optimistic, but in fact, he did learn to do brain surgery from Ellegala, and he later taught a young Tanzanian doctor fresh out of medical school what he had learned. The young doctor, who eventually became the hospital’s director, taught a second young doctor. Ellegala had not only succeeded in replacing himself; he had launched a chain of teaching surgeons at the hospital, where surgery had never been done before except by visiting “medical missionaries”. He then became infused with the desire to start an NGO devoted to sending Western surgeons to teach African doctors to perform surgery, rather than sending them to do the surgeries that the African doctors were unable to do. Thus was born Madaktari Africa. Hundreds, then thousands of babies, children, and adults, who would have died without surgery, could now be saved.

This forced me to think about the down side of modern medicine. It works too well. People who would have died instead survive and go on to have children. Earth’s population explodes. People accustomed to having large families to ensure that enough children would survive to adulthood to carry on their genes (and farm their land and take care of their elderly parents) now find themselves struggling to support all those surviving kids. Food, water, and jobs are all in short supply. Of course, I speak from a position of huge privilege; who am I to say that I should live and Tanzanian children should not have the same chances that I had? I cannot say that, yet whenever I read or hear of how many deaths have been averted by this or that medical technology or wonder drug, I cannot help but think that what seems like a good thing can have unintended negative consequences. Sure, if modern medicine went away and antibiotics no longer worked (something that is already happening anyway as bacteria become resistant to the antibiotics that we have) and surgery were no longer an option, we would all live shorter lives. As it is, we are crowding out other species (both plants and animals) and are already starting to see the effects of over-population: wars and massive refugee crises.

What is the answer? Is there an answer?


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Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Posted by nliakos on November 19, 2018

by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik (Dey St., an imprint of William Morrow Publishers, 2015)

Having recently seen the documentary based on this sort-of-biography (three times! And I could easily see it again), I decided it was high time I read the book. The book did not disappoint. It’s not exactly a biography in the sense that it’s not a chronological narrative of RBG’s life. Instead, the chapters each focus on a different aspect of that life, such as her family background, her education, her marriage,  her early work as a professor and ACLU lawyer leading the Women’s Rights Project (WRP), her friendships, her appointment to the Supreme Court in 1993, her best-known opinions and dissents (helpfully annotated for better appreciation), and so on. There are plenty of photos of the justice as a child, a (beautiful) young woman, and an older woman, as well as images of drawings and other art depicting her, documents and letters, memes, even a couple of pages of various women (and one baby) dressed up to look like her, with her iconic glasses and lace collars and (sometimes) a crown. It was an entertaining and informative read (even though not much was new to me, as I had seen the CNN movie and read so many reviews and articles about her). I guess RBG is such a hero, and her story is so amazing, that I never tire of hearing it/reading about it/watching it. A new biography by Jane Sherron de Hart has just come out, so I will probably eventually read that as well. (The WaPo review of that one indicated that RBG’s official biographer is still at work on the official one.) And there’s a biopic called On the Basis of Sex, directed by Mimi Leder with Felicity Jones as a young RBG, that also came out this year. Lots to put on my to-read and to-watch lists!

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The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

Posted by nliakos on November 15, 2018

by Deborah Blum  (Penguin 2018)

The “one chemist” of the title is consumer advocacy pioneer Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, who headed up the Bureau of Chemistry at the Department of Agriculture from 1882 to 1912. Wiley fought to protect American consumers from mislabeled, adulterated, dangerous foods and medicines for his entire adult life. But The Poison Squad is not just about Wiley; it is also the story of his many allies (e.g., Willard Bigelow, lead chemist for Wiley’s early research into common food additives like sodium benzoate; and Henry J. Heinz of ketchup fame, who was an early advocate of preservative-free foods) and enemies (e.g., John Queeny, founder of Monsanto and a staunch defender of the unlabeled use of saccharin in food; and James Wilson, Secretary of Agriculture and Wiley’s boss, who often caved to industrial demands and suppressed Wiley’s findings and reports). (Blum helpfully provides a 9-page alphabetical cast of characters at the beginning of the book–I wish that all non-fiction writers did the same!) Scientists and journalists, novelists and cookbook authors, politicians and suffragists and consumer advocates on the one side, and industrialists, bureaucrats, different politicians and even presidents on the other–a great battle was waged for many years over the regulation of America’s food and drug supply. Interestingly from our perspective, around the turn of the 20th century, Democratic and Republican roles were reversed. The Democrats were the bad guys, supporting industry demands to be able to freely adulterate foods to cheapen production and increase profits, while the (progressive) Republicans were on the side of consumer safety.

Though the politics has changed, that battle continues today. Just one example is saccharin, one of the deleterious additives targeted by Wiley a century ago, which is still readily available on supermarket shelves now despite the finding that it “has a physiologic effect . . . in every place, in every cell.” (It was briefly banned in the 1980s but was unbanned in 2000.) Despite convincing scientific evidence, the food industry has continued to fight for the right to poison the public, as long as it increases their profit margin.

Wiley focused both on banning harmful substances in food, drinks, and medicines, and on truthful, complete labeling and advertising, so that consumers could know what they were buying and ingesting. He was also a dedicated feminist. He married late in life (not for lack of trying, but his wife, Anna Kelton, refused him when he first proposed, when she was in her late twenties and he about twice that). He was an enthusiastic supporter of his wife’s political activism in the suffragist movement. (Favorite quote, when Anna was arrested and jailed for political activity: “He had fought all his life for a principle and hardly could deny her the same privilege.”

Wiley was uncompromising in his zeal to clean up the food supply and get rid of false claims about medicinal properties. Time and time again, he courageously stood up to his boss (and to his boss’s boss, the President) and to his numerous detractors and opponents. One cannot help but admire him.

Reading about the long years of struggle before the first Pure Food and Drug Act (1906) and the ensuing struggle over writing and enforcing the regulations, I was reminded of the seemingly never-ending struggle for gun control legislation. The National Rifle Association plays the role of the food industry executives who shamelessly attacked those who were trying to protect the public. Organizations like MomsRising and Every Town for Gun Safety and individuals like Jim Brady and Gabby Giffords and the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas students play the roles of Harvey Wiley, Alice Lakey, Sinclair Lewis, Lincoln Steffens and so many others who refused to admit defeat despite numerous losses. The only way to combat this incessant greed, it would seem, is to persist, no matter how long it takes. Once the legislative battle is won, however imperfectly, we must gear up for the regulatory battle. And with Donald Trump in the White House, even regulations that have long been in place to protect consumers are being rolled back to the detriment of consumer safety and to the delight of the  industrialists (such as gun manufacturers and food/beverage/drug industry tycoons). The fight against the food and drug industries is never over, as Blum shows in her Epilogue. We must be forever vigilant.

This book is a fascinating and educational read. I highly recommend it, but I would advise you not to read it over lunch!

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Fear: Trump in the White House

Posted by nliakos on October 7, 2018

by Bob Woodward (Simon and Schuster 2018; Nook format)

By the time I read this, there were no surprises, but Woodward includes minute details from conversations (via extensive interviews) between with a conversation between David Bossie and Steve Bannon about the possibility of Donald Trump running for President (Bannon scoffed: “Of what country?”), jumping six years ahead to 2016 and the campaign and election, and ending up several months into 2017 , for no particular reason that I can see except that while every single day has brought new horrors from this White House, Woodward had to stop writing and publish the book at some point, or he would still be writing. He probably is still writing (Volume II).

I am quite put off by the frequent use of fucking as both an adjective and adverb. It’s as if the English language has no other modifiers. Just a few examples: Bannon: “I don’t have time for fucking nonsense.” (adjective) Bannon again: “Twelve million fucking dollars in cash out of the Ukraine!” (adjective) and: “Fucking absurd” (adverb).   Trump : “That was the biggest fucking mistake I’ve made.” (adjective) and: “I always knew Gary was a fucking globalist. I didn’t know you were such a fucking globalist, Rob.” (adjective) and: “If it weren’t Sunday, you’d shut the markets down, that’s how fucking hard you fucking go!” (adverbs)  Well, you get the idea. Just the men. Do they really talk like that? Woodward dutifully records every “fucking” that was ostensibly uttered. . . . It reminds me of the Nixon tapes. Presidents and their staffs, unedited.

In fact, I have somewhat more respect for Trump than I did before I read the book. In the reported conversations, he often seems more aware of keeping his campaign promises and the potential consequences of various actions than I gave him credit for. Not all the time, but sometimes.

The book is about 100 pages shorter than one expects, with the last 80 pages or so given over to voluminous notes and an index. I thought I had a few more days of reading, but then suddenly, it was over. The final sentence: ” . . . (John) Dowd had seen the tragic flaw. In the political back-and-forth, the evasions, the denials, the tweeting, the obscuring, crying ‘Fake News,’ the indignation, Trump had one overriding problem that Dowd knew but could not bring himself to say to the president: ‘You’re a fucking liar.'”

As the future unfolds, we will see if this “tragic flaw” will be the undoing of this president. One can only hope.

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Posted by nliakos on March 17, 2018

by Maynard Solomon (Schirmer Books 1977)

I’ve been wanting to read a biography of Ludwig van Beethoven for a long time; a friend lent me this one. Maynard Solomon divides the great composer’s life into four stages: his childhood and adolescence in Bonn; his early years in Vienna; his “heroic” period in Vienna, including the Napoleanic wars and his romance with Antonie Brentano, the “Immortal Beloved”; and the end of his life, post-Immortal Beloved.

Ludwig/Louis van Beethoven never had a real childhood. He was cruelly abused by his alcoholic father when he was very young; by the time he entered adolescence, he was the main breadwinner for the family and responsible for his two younger brothers.

In Vienna, where he went to study under Haydn, Beethoven was known to be eccentric, devoid of social skills, and lacking in normal manners, but his virtuosity at the pianoforte and later his skill as a composer enabled  people to overlook his many faults, and he became famous among musicians and the music-loving public. (This is not to say that everything he composed was marked by genius; he was not above appealing to the common concert-goer.) He seems to have been incapable of forming and maintaining a normal love relationship with a woman. He kept falling for unavailable women; Antonie Brantano, although she did love him in return, was married. Ending the affair forced Beethoven to recognize that he was never going to marry. Perhaps this is why he became so obsessed with wresting his nephew Karl from his mother’s care and acting as his parent (sadly, an abusive one; this was all he knew). It would be the closest he got to actual fatherhood.

The book is very detailed, meticulously researched and footnoted. However, Solomon tends to attribute emotions and motivations to Beethoven (and others) as if they were facts, rather than speculation. In some instances, he bases these pronouncements on the theories of Sigmund Freud, who may have been the God of psychoanalysis in the 1970s but has been largely discredited in the 21st century, making parts of the book seem dated (and less convincing that they probably were back when it was published). The dry, academic tone makes it slow going. I found The Teaching Company’s Great Masters: Beethoven–His Life and Music to be much more accessible and memorable. In fact, some of what I have said here may actually have come from this set of eight lectures taught by Prof. Robert Greenberg of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Greenberg refers often to the Solomon biography, and he credits him with being the first person to conclusively show that Antonie Brentano was the only woman who could have been the Immortal Beloved. But Greenberg takes the same material and presents it in a much more interesting way. Of course, it’s very helpful when one has the chance to listen to excerpts from the music being discussed, which a book cannot provide. Instead, Solomon finishes each of his four sections with a chapter titled “The Music”, in which he describes, analyzes, and gives the historical significance of the music Beethoven produced during that period. I found these chapters deadly boring. for the most part. I am not familiar with most of Beethoven’s oeuvre, and even when I know a piece well, I find it impossible to make sense of or appreciate a historical or musical analysis of it. I would much rather just listen to it. I don’t mind being told about the music (along with hearing it), but just reading about it is deadly. How glad I am that I did not major in music! I would have been forced to read stuff like that, and worse, write stuff like that.

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Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love

Posted by nliakos on December 14, 2016

by Dava Sobel (Walker & Co. 1999; ISBN 0-8027-1343-2)

Having enjoyed Dava Sobel’s previous book, Longitude, I opened this biography of Galileo Galilei with high expectations, and it did not disappoint. In addition to the meticulous retelling of Galileo’s life, discoveries, and inventions, Sobel has chosen to shine a light on the special relationship between the great philosopher and his elder daughter Suor Maria Celeste (born Virginia Galilei), who spent most of her short life in the Convent of San Matteo, in the town of Arcetri, outside of Florence. Suor Maria Celeste had a fine intellect and was by all accounts a virtuous and kind young woman who adored her father above all else. Despite his difficulties with the Roman Inquisition, the banning of his books,  his detainment (first in Rome, then in Tuscany and finally in his own house in Arcetri), she never doubted his goodness or rightness about natural phenomena such as the Earth’s motion.

What sets Galileo’s Daughter apart from other biographies of Galileo is the inclusion of many of the letters which Suor Maria Celeste wrote to her father (his replies have been lost), which the author translated herself. In the letters, we read about the many services that she performed for her father (from sewing his lace collars to copying his manuscripts to managing his affairs when he was away), the many requests she made of him (for money and ingredients for preparing foods and medicines, often not for herself but for others–including him), and most of all the great love and respect that she bore him.

When Suor Maria Celeste died of dysentery at the age of only 34, Galileo, who was then 70 years old, was overwhelmed with grief. When he himself died eight years later, his student and companion Vincenzio Viviani, unable to bury Galileo as he wished due to papal decree, secretly buried him together with his beloved daughter. Eventually, both sets of remains were re-interred together in a grand monument in the Church of Santa Croce in Florence.

Some things I did not realize about Galileo:

  • He was in poor health for most of his life.
  • He lost his sight in his old age.
  • He remained a devout Catholic despite all that he suffered at the hands of the Church and despite realizing that the Pope was not infallible.
  • Many of his friends never deserted him despite his vilification by Pope Urban VIII and the Roman Inquisition.
  • Einstein considered him the father of modern experimental science (pg. 326, Note).

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Posted by nliakos on December 15, 2015

by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick (First Second 2011; ISBN 978-1-59643-259-8)

I’ve been a Richard Feynman fan since reading Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! many years ago, so when Ottaviani and Myrick’s Feynman came out a few years ago I decided I had to read it. It’s taken me a few years to get around to it, but recently, while cruising the biography shelves looking for (and not finding) Michael Faraday, I came upon this graphic biography and snapped it up. I was disappointed, however. There was not much that I had not already read in Surely You’re Joking…, What Do You Care What Other People Think? and The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. Anecdotes that had me laughing out loud when I read the original books seemed to be lifted directly from Feynman’s books into this one, but not entirely, with the action left in but the funny commentary missing, like the chapter on safe-cracking. Ottaviani (the writer) and Myrick (the illustrator) have organized the material chronologically, which is helpful, but otherwise I keep feeling that a Feynman aficionado would not learn anything new, whereas a reader new to Feynman would not be inspired to seek out Feynman’s own books and essays after reading this one. There simply was not enough room to include enough detail about Feynman’s funniest and most interesting escapades. They seemed a dull reflection of the originals (example: young Feynman cluelessly examining blueprints for the Oak Ridge TN nuclear plant and asking an inane question about something he doesn’t understand, prompting a horrified response from the engineers, who hurry off to redesign the offending part).

Ottaviani and Myrick finished off their book with an “(Almost Complete*) Bibliography and Early Sketches” section in which their affection for their subject shines through. The annotated bibliography of source materials written by and about Feynman and his fellow physicists lists several books, recordings, and collections that sound very worthwhile; I will put a few of those on my to-read list.

This is only the second graphic book I have read (the first being The Influencing Machine), and I must confess I don’t particularly like the format. In many cases, the illustrations obfuscate rather than clarify (I had a hard time figuring out who Feynman was in some illustrations, and all of the women look the same to me). Only the illustrations of physical principles are helpful, as in the sequence when Feynman is explaining his Nobel Prize-winning QED to a lay audience in New Zealand. (Nevertheless, I still did not understand QED.)  The graphic format may increase the appeal for younger and non-native speaking readers.

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Soundings: The Story of the Remarkable Woman Who Mapped the Ocean Floor

Posted by nliakos on March 24, 2015

by Hali Felt (Henry Holt & Co. 2012; ISBN 987-0-8050-9215-8)

This was a serendipitous discovery I made when I was cruising along the Biography shelf in the library and just happened to notice this book, which has been on my To Read list ever since it was published. It did not disappoint!

Marie Tharp was instrumental in the acceptance of plate tectonics (then known as continental drift and disparaged by most of the world’s geologists). Tharp’s groundbreaking map of the Atlantic seafloor, based on soundings taken from ships crossing the ocean, clearly showed a ridge splitting the Mid-ocean Ridge (mountain range). Felt writes, She spent a lot of time looking closely at the ridge whose presence she’d confirmed, a wide bump where the ocean floor gained elevation. It was apparent on all six of the profiles, which meant that it was a range, not just one isolated mountain. And then something happened. ‘As I looked further at the detail, and tried to unravel it,’ she said, ‘I noticed that in each profile there was a deep notch near the crest of the ridge.’ A deep notch, a rift. This was something new. She kept studying it, checking the sounding records over and over again to make sure she hadn’t mis-plotted a depth. . . . They (Marie and her partner Bruce Heezen) both know that the existence of such a rift means continental drift. This was in 1952, when to espouse Alfred Wegener’s hypothesis that the earth’s crust was made up of giant pieces or plates that moved around on the earth’s surface was professional suicide. But what Marie saw could not be denied, and geology was changed by what she had found and brought to light with her map.

Still, for her entire career, Marie struggled against gender bias. She was marginalized and ignored by most of the people that she worked with and for. The fact that she never got her Ph.D. probably didn’t help, either. It is painful to read about how she struggled to get her work recognized by the scientific establishment. And when Bruce Heezen died unexpectedly at age 53, she lost not only a life partner but a longtime professional ally. Nevertheless, she soldiered on for about 30 years and managed to accomplish a great deal.

Marie Tharpe was unique. She made a remarkable achievement that has had enormous impact on both geology and cartography , and she did it against great odds. She was incredibly smart, talented, and stubborn. Like author Hali Felt, who is a living presence in the book and who at the end declares herself one of the “Tharpophiles”, I am very glad to know Marie’s extraordinary story. And if you are reading this post, you know it, too.


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I Was Number 87: A Deaf Woman’s Ordeal of Misdiagnosis, Institutionalization, and Abuse

Posted by nliakos on November 12, 2014

by Anne M. Bolander and Adair N. Renning ( Gallaudet University Press 2000)

The title says it all. Anne Bolander’s mother died when she was three, and her father remarried. Anne’s stepmother was either wicked, or mentally deranged, or both. She sent five-year-old Anne to an institution in Virginia called the Stoutamyer School, but it was not a school in any sense of the word, as there were no classes, no books, and no learning outside of the constant need to follow unarticulated and unpredictable rules which, if broken, caused the child to be beaten, isolated, or otherwise punished. Margie, the director of this evil place, seemed to take pleasure in administering the punishments, and would fire any staff who dared to be kind to the children. The children were not allowed to own anything (toys and teddy bears were confiscated and destroyed), speak to anyone, touch anyone, or witness another child’s punishment, even inadvertently. Punishment for infractions was swift and long and calculated to do damage. Several children died during the five years that Anne spent there. It was a living hell–kind of a combination of maximum security prison and the worst kind of slavery, but really more like your worst nightmare.

Occasionally, Anne was taken home to her family, where the abuse continued, her stepmother seeming to take the same pleasure in punishment that Margie did, her father going along with it and her six brothers turning a blind eye to it.

When she was about eleven, Anne spent some time at a convent-run school for children with special needs where for the first time, she experienced kindness and love, and her hearing problem was finally diagnosed. However, her parents refused to believe that she was hard of hearing (for some reasons preferring the diagnosis of mental retardation) and would not let her use her hearing aid at home. The blissful months at St. Mary’s soon over, the family moved to another state and Anne was re-institutionalized. And so went her childhood and adolescence–a combination of special “schools” and living at home in a dysfunctional, loveless family. She eventually learned to lipread, sign, speak and get along well enough in the world to make her living (amazing), but her starvation for love and friendship led her to overlook warning signs that her “friends” were only using her. Not until her forties (with the support of therapy) was she able to muster the self-esteem to assert herself, and writing the book is one of the ways that she has done this.

One would guess that the injustice, abuse, and cruelty described in this book had taken place in some distant time, but no; it was here in America, in the second half of the 20th century.

Everyone should read this book.

(Intermediate to advanced English language learners could probably understand the book without much trouble, as the language is simple and straightforward. (The co-author “translated” Anne’s deaf-English into standard English.)

Posted in Autobiography, Biography, Memoir, Non-fiction, Recommended for ESL or EFL Learners | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »