Nina's Reading Blog

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Archive for the ‘Memoir’ Category

Not Tonight, Josephine: A Road Trip Through Small-Town America

Posted by nliakos on September 1, 2017

by George Mahood (2016)

George Mahood publishes his own work, apparently; I can’t find any mention of a publisher anywhere. This may explain why this book cost only $2.99 (Kindle edition), and it was well worth it. It’s a travelogue by a young Britisher traveling around the United States (first with a boyhood friend, then with his girlfriend) in an old rattletrap of a Dodge Caravan (the eponymous Josephine). which breaks down frequently, requiring regular infusions of cash. It’s the usual compendium of encounters with surprisingly friendly folks, with the slight twist that it was written for a British audience, including little explanations like, “There was no real equivalent to the UK’s MOT test. . . .” Also, the subtitle implies that Mahood spent most of his time in small American towns; however, he actually visited quite a lot of tourist sights and national parks, which is not a bad thing; they just aren’t what I would call small-town America. But that’s not really a criticism, just an observation. I enjoyed reading about the national parks.

Mahood is very funny and I enjoyed his humorous descriptions of the many odd situations he and his friends found themselves in. And I liked the fact that he liked the U.S.A. He writes, “My travels across America had exceeded all of my expectations. Its cities were bigger, its mountains higher, roads straighter, rivers wider, lowlands sparser, buildings taller, lakes greater, winters colder, gas cheaper, portions larger, canyons grander, badlands badder, deserts desertier, desserts dessertier, taxis yellowier, Halloweens scarier, bears grizzlier, corn palaces cornier, ski slopes snowier, Brians greasier, prairie dogs dafter, walks hikier, bacon crispier, green salads beefier, park rangers speedier, mechanics wackier (and sometimes grease-you-up-and-screwier), crazy golf crazier, drive-thrus noisier, and its people friendlier than I could have ever possibly imagined.” (You just have to read the book to understand some of those references.)

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Walking to Listen: 4,000 miles Across America, One Story at a Time

Posted by nliakos on August 2, 2017

by Andrew Forsthoefel (Bloomsbury USA 2017)

For some reason, I love reading first-person accounts of very long walks (very long bike rides appeal, too)–perhaps because I will never do one of these marathon walks (across the US, across France, from Tierra del Fuego to Alaska…). This book fits right into this genre. Andrew Forsthoefel yearned to know how to become a true adult, and so he decided to set out walking from his home in eastern Pennsylvania with a sign that said “Walking to Listen”, hoping to meet people who could guide him on his journey to adulthood. He ended up in Los Angeles eleven months later, having understood that maturation is an ongoing thing, not one which we complete in any kind of recognizable way. The various men and women he encountered on his trek shared their stories with him (85 hours’ worth of recorded interviews), and he shares some of them with us. Partial transcripts from some of the interviews are shared between chapters, and other stories and guidance that he received are summarized.

Much of the book is devoted to the author’s experiences, his emotional ups and downs, his fears of the people he was about to meet (in every single case, until he met them and they turned out to be harmless/friendly/helpful/generous, and some of them became real friends), and the very real physical dangers he faced, such as the crossing of Death Valley.

He took three books along with him (Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman; The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran; and Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke). He quotes extensively from them, for they had many important lessons for him in their pages. He must have known these books very intimately after living with them for almost a year. After reading his book, I felt I knew those three books better too.

I enjoyed the book, like others of its genre.

(Excruciatingly created using the touchscreen of my Samsung tablet, while I am on vacation in Greece. I can’t figure out how to tag the post or categorize it; I guess I will have to do those things when I’m back home with my laptop. I’ve read reviews of the WordPress app for tablets and smartphones,  and they do not make me want to get it! Perhaps I should mention that I read the book on the tablet too, using my kindle app.)

 

 

 

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I Forgot to Remember: A Memoir of Amnesia

Posted by nliakos on April 23, 2017

by Su Meck, with Daniel de Visé (Simon and Schuster 2014)

In 1988, when the author was 22 years old, living in Fort Worth with her husband and two sons, aged two and six months, a ceiling fan fell on her in a freak accident, leaving her brain damaged for life. All of her episodic memories (memories of things that happened) and most of her procedural memories (knowledge of how to do things, like brush her hair and read) were wiped out when that fan hit her. Even her ability to form new memories was destroyed for many months, although as time passed, she was able to get a lot of that ability back. As a result, her remembered life begins at around age 23, but even at almost fifty, she is unable to remember as well as most people do. All of her childhood memories, what she learned in school, how to bring up her kids, her knowledge of interpersonal relationships, how to keep herself and her kids safe and healthy, the role of sex in a marriage–these were gone for Su Meck. To try and figure out who she was, she had to depend on others’ memories of what she was like before the accident. Her husband had to teach her how to do everything, sometimes over and over again because she would forget.

Incredibly, Su was discharged from the hospital in a state of complete confusion and sent home to a husband and children she did not even recognize. It is a miracle that they all survived her massive incompetence! Even had she known how to take care of herself and her children when her husband was working, she suffered “lightning” events in which she would collapse and spend several minutes unconscious of her surroundings. Her little boys quickly learned to take these episodes in stride and to call 911 when necessary. She admits that she must have left them unsupervised often. Somehow, they did not succumb to accidents or bad luck. Maybe little children are capable of more than we realize. Hers certainly stepped up and took over the adult roles when she could not. As she says, she and her three children (a daughter joined the boys in 1992) grew up together. For instance, by “helping” them with their elementary school homework, she learned to read again, very slowly.

Meck’s husband Jim was in some ways a model husband. Almost as young as Su at the time of the accident, he did what he could to get her cared for, and he stuck by her through thick and thin during the next 25 years. However, he was no saint. He had an abusive streak (he would call her stupid when she couldn’t remember things or when she behaved inappropriately, and he suffered from a kind of temporary insanity during sleep when he would physically hurt his wife, knocking her head against the wall, hitting her and calling her names; she was too cowed to protect herself from his inexplicable night-time rages. She didn’t realize that all marriages were not like hers. She was extremely dependent on Jim for everything–although as the years passed, he spent more time away, traveling for work, than he spent at home, leaving her to cope somehow. When they began to talk about the past for the book project, Jim actually realized, for the first time, how severely disabled Su was after the accident and how little she understood what was expected of her. She was somehow able to mimic other people’s behavior so that they did not realize the extent of her disabilities, but in her own mind, she was always afraid she would be unmasked and humiliated.

Still, she eventually returned to college and completed her degree (her daughter, then 18, taught her study skills she had no idea about). In an unusual move, she shared her story with one of her professors, who urged her to speak out about her life; this eventually led to an article in the Washington Post, and Su learned to accept herself and to come out of the closet of shame in which she had spent over twenty years. It’s a very inspiring story.

One thing I really enjoyed was that the Mecks lived for a time in Maryland, not far from where I live, and their daughter Kassidy was born in the same hospital where my daughter Vicki was born premature exactly one month later. Like me, Su Meck went into preterm labor three months before her due date, but she spent three months on complete bed-rest and somehow managed to avoid delivering the baby prematurely. This was what was supposed to happen in my case as well, but it didn’t work out the same way.  It is amazing to think that our stories almost came together at Georgetown University Medical Center back in 1992!

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I, Who Did Not Die: A Sweeping Story of Loss, Redemption, and Fate

Posted by nliakos on April 17, 2017

by Zahed Haftlang and Najah Aboud, with Meredith May (Regan Arts, 2017)

I, who very rarely buy books and almost never buy them before I have read them (or have at least read an extremely positive review of them), stumbled on this one on a table of new releases at my local Barnes & Noble. The extraordinary coincidences that the narrative is built on are so compelling that I couldn’t resist it. Zahed Haftlang, one of the thousands of Iranian “child soldiers”, and Najah Aboud, a 29-year-old Iraqi soldier, tell their stories in alternate chapters. Thirteen-year-old Zahed, fleeing an abusive home, becomes a medic at the front and witnesses unspeakable horrors. Najah, unhappy to be called up again for the army just when his falafel restaurant is starting to do well and he has just fallen in love, barely sees any action before he is grievously wounded in the battle of Khorramshahr. He comes face to face with Zahed, who is searching the battlefield for wounded Iranians. Miraculously, instead of finishing Najah off, something inspires Zahed to spare him. He then hides him, stabilizes him, and protects him from harm as long as he can, and finally gets him to a hospital. After that, he keeps the strange encounter in his mind for a long time; he prays that the Iraqi will survive his wounds and be able to return to his family.

Najah survives, but he spends seventeen long years in various Iranian POW camps, long past the end of the war. Meanwhile, Zahed spends some time back in his home town, falls in love with a young nurse and plans to marry her, but loses everything when her home is bombed on the day of their engagement party and she is killed along with her entire family. Crazed with grief, Zahed re-enlists and spends several years as a sniper, trying hopelessly to avenge his loss by killing every Iraqi he can. He is captured just before the war ends in 1988, and he spends a couple of years in an Iraqi POW camp, where he is treated brutally by a sadistic commander. But he too survives, returns home, gets married, and starts a family.

Improbably, both men end up in Vancouver, Canada, where they meet again, and Najah is able to pay his debt to Zahed by saving him from his own self-loathing and depression. At the end of the book, each man sums up the impact that their experience had on them. Zahed writes, “Najah, you are the other half of my heart. . . . We saved each other not once but many times over, . . . Your smile turns a light on inside me, and I thought of you often during my captivity to help me survive.”  Najah writes, “Some force beyond human comprehension drove Zahed and me to be in the same place at the same time during the war. It is the greatest and most humbling mystery of my life. Zahed, I thank you in my heart every day for removing your finger from the trigger. You may not be my brother by blood, but you are my brother in humanity, which is indestructible.”

Seven hundred thousand lives were lost during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. Through a twist of fate, these two enemies were destined not only to survive the war but to save each other’s lives and to love each other as brothers. A miracle?

Posted in History, Memoir, Non-fiction | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Lion (originally published as ‘A Long Way Home: A Memoir’)

Posted by nliakos on April 9, 2017

by Saroo Brierly with Larry Buttrose (New American Library, 2013)

First, I read or heard about Saroo Brierly’s incredible story–how he found himself lost and alone in Calcutta when he was only five; how he not only survived life on the streets there but was miraculously adopted by a kind Australian couple and grew up in Tasmania; how as a young man, he improbably found his hometown using Google Earth and returned to be reunited with his mother, brother, and sister. Then I saw the movie. I loved it. So when my friend Helen offered to lend me this book, I seized the opportunity and devoured it in less than two days. It’s not very different from the movie (Brierly’s adoptive brother, Mantosh, is portrayed much more sympathetically in the book); of course there is a lot more detail, more introspection. It is easy to read and despite knowing how it all turns out, I found it very hard to put down. I highly recommend it!

 

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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.

Posted in Autobiography, Memoir, Non-fiction | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab

Posted by nliakos on December 31, 2016

by Christine Montross (Penguin 2007)

This book has been on my to-read list for years, possibly since it was published, but I could never find it. Finally, I bought a used copy. It was worth the wait. Christine Montross was a resident in psychiatry when the book came out; she based it on the journal that she kept during her first semester in medical school, when medical students study human anatomy by dissecting a human cadaver which has been donated for the purpose.

Montross describes the dissection and the feelings engendered by it; she adds a dose of history when she travels to Padua to visit the theater when the father of modern anatomy, Andreas Vesalius, essentially began the practice of cadaver dissection for medical students; she explains that without donated cadavers, doctors and students used the bodies of executed criminals or bought cadavers which had been dug up at night, in secret–and sometimes actually did the grave-robbing themselves. But she remains convinced that no other method can replace actual dissection, saying that the woman whose body she essentially destroyed during that semester in anatomy lab gave her a precious gift: “. . . She neither knew me nor knew anything about me, and yet she bequeathed to me this offering, unthinkable for centuries, that has formed the foundations of my ability to heal. My hours with her neither cured her nor eased her suffering. Bit by bit, I cut apart and dismantled her, a beautiful old woman who came to me whole. The lessons her body taught me are of critical importance to my knowledge of medicine, but her selfless gesture of donation will be my lasting example of how much it is possible to give to a total stranger in the hopes of healing.”

The last part of the cadaver to be dissected is the head and brain. Despite their progress in with the emotional component of cutting up the body of a stranger, Montross and her classmates find it extraordinarily difficult to dissect their cadavers’ faces and heads. Montross writes, “The brain is the true embodiment of my own conflicted response to anatomy. Somewhere deep within its crenellations, here lies wonder, and here lies the question of whether we have a right to pursue wonder in seemingly inhuman ways. Here is the knowledge gained by dissection, which drives our actions forward, and here lies the toll the process takes on each of us, in stress or dreams or dissonance. Here in the brain is the newly transformed identity of the doctor-to-be, with a beginner’s knowledge of disease and healing, with a stomach more steeled to trauma and to death. But somewhere, too, there must be the echo of the person who existed before cutting a human body, before feeling the cool stiffness of a pulseless heart.” Montross’ prose is exquisite; I was not surprised to learn that she is a published poet as well as a doctor.

I don’t know why it was so hard to find this book, because I think every doctor in training should read it (probably before they take anatomy lab).

Posted in Memoir, Science | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

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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The Penguin Lessons: What I Learned from a Remarkable Bird

Posted by nliakos on April 13, 2016

by Tom Michell (Ballantine 2015; ISBN 978-1-101-96741-6)

Tom Michell is an Englishman, about the same age as I am. During the 1970s, both of us traveled to a strange continent to live and work–the adventure of a lifetime. Michell has written about his adventure in this endearing account of a young man and his penguin. (Perhaps I should say of a penguin and his young man.) Michell was on holiday in Uruguay during a break from his teaching job outside of Buenos Aires, Argentina, when he came upon an oil-soaked Magellan penguin on a beach strewn with the bodies of similarly oil-soaked Magellan penguins, all dead except for this one. Without considering the consequences, he captured the penguin (which turned out to be fiercely aggressive) and took it back to the apartment he was staying in to try to clean it up with dish detergent, shampoo, olive oil, and butter.

One of the most wondrous passages in the book concerns the penguin’s sudden transformation during this cleaning procedure. After the bird drew serious blood from Michell’s finger, he bound its feet together, its wings close to its body, and its beak shut, while he applied and then rinsed off the dish detergent. Michell writes, “Suddenly the exhausted penguin lay still. . . . Within moments of being a terrified, hostile, and resentful animal that was . . . determined to exact revenge on me, . . . it became a docile and cooperative partner in this cleanup operation. The transformation occurred as I washed off the first of the detergent. It was as if the bird had suddenly understood that I was trying to rid it of that disgusting oil rather than commit murder. . . .

Needing to travel back to Argentina the following day, Michell attempts to return the penguin to the sea, but it refuses to leave him, and he ends up trying to smuggle it into Argentina (getting caught and assuring the customs agent that it was an Argentine penguin, not a Uruguayan penguin, so he was just repatriating it). He takes it to the boarding school where he lives and teaches, where the penguin, which he calls Juan Salvado (aka Juan Salvador), is adopted by staff and students alike as a kind of mascot. They all take to visiting the penguin and baring their souls to it as it gazes into their eyes and seems to listen to and understand them perfectly.

Michell’s descriptions of Juan Salvado learning that a dead fish is still food, how to ascend and descend a staircase, and how to swim in a pool, are enchanting.

The reader is also treated to some wonderful descriptions of the places he traveled (without the penguin) and the people he encountered, some Argentine history and culture, and some interesting penguin lore. The book is ably illustrated by Neil Baker; unfortunately, the photographs Michell took of the penguin have been lost.

In the genre of amazing relationships between humans and animals, this book is a standout. It’s interesting, funny, and heart-breaking in turns.

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