Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for the ‘Memoir’ Category

On Two Feet and Wings: One Boy’s Amazing Story of Survival

Posted by nliakos on April 19, 2019

by Abbas Kazerooni (Skyscape 2014)

From the front matter page: “This book is based on real events that happened to me a long time ago when I was a child. To write it for you I have simplified some events and changed some details.”

Abbas Kazerooni is a California lawyer, actor, writer, and producer. Born in Iran in 1978 to formerly wealthy (under the Shah) parents, Abbas was nine years old when the regime, at war with Iraq since 1980, lowered the age at which boys could be drafted into the army (to serve as cannon fodder, basically) to eight. Terrified, the family decided to leave Iran. Abbas’ father’s passport had been confiscated, so they determined that he would stay behind, and Abbas and his mother would travel to Turkey and eventually to the U.K., where they had relatives.

But at the last minute, Marzieh Kazerooni was denied permission to get on the plane. Desperate, the parents let Abbas fly by himself to Istanbul, where they promised he would be met by a friend who would take care of him. The man did indeed meet the plane, but he did not take care of the boy. Instead of taking him home as he had promised to do, he handed Abbas a list of cheap hotels where Farsi was spoken and left. Abbas was alone in Istanbul, where he would live for several months until he finally received a visa for the U.K.

Abbas was very young and frightened, but he was also cautious, resourceful, and very lucky, He was lucky in that he happened to meet some very kind people who helped him (the taxi driver who helped him find the least unsuitable hotel that night; the hotel receptionist, who took a liking to him; some kind compatriots who translated for him at the British Consulate; and a consulate worker who took an interest in him.  He was cautious in that he carefully hid the money his parents had sent him with, eating only once a day, spending as little as possible, testing out the hotel receptionist and maid until he felt sure he could trust them not to rob him. And he was resourceful in that he had many great ideas about how to save, and eventually how to make, money. He ran errands in the marketplace and found various jobs for himself in the hotel (where he preferred to stay, feeling unsafe on the streets of Istanbul)–as the “tea boy” who served the other guests glasses of tea, as the shoeshine boy the hotel had never had before. Through it all, he hid his fear and distress from his parents; when he spoke to them, he intimated that he was staying in a better hotel than he was actually in and that everything was fine. But he shed many tears.

Abbas’ story reads like a novel. One can’t imagine how this little boy managed on his own for so long in a strange city where he knew no one and did not speak the language. But he did, and his story makes a great read.

Unfortunately, once he reached England, his trials continued. These are recounted in another book, The Boy with Two Lives. But eventually, he made his way to the United States, where he has apparently done very well for himself–no surprise, considering how resilient and clever he was at the ago of nine.

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

There Will Be No Miracles Here

Posted by nliakos on April 9, 2019

by Casey Gerald (Riverhead Books 2018)

I apparently placed a hold on this book, but I can’t actually remember placing it or why I wanted to read it. Nevertheless, when I was notified that it was available, I duly went and picked it up and read it. And it was interesting. . . . I just couldn’t figure out exactly where it was going or what Casey Gerald’s significance is.

Gerald had a difficult childhood, growing up poor in Dallas; his mother suffered from mental illness and abandoned the family when he was twelve; his father, a former college football star, spent time in prison. Casey was partly brought up by his grandmother and older sister. But he was a smart kid who wanted to please, and he was a good athlete; graduating from high school, he was selected to play football for Yale, which he had never heard of, and felt disrespected when it was suggested to him: Here was my own coach, saying in so many words that I was such a pathetic football player that he’d send me halfway around the world to play peewee football for a team nobody knew anything about. Yale changed his life’s trajectory forever.

He is black; he is gay; he is a Yale man; he graduated from Harvard Business School; he led a black men’s group at Yale, traveled and gave speeches within and outside of the U.S., worked for a Democratic think tank in Washington, D.C. during the Obama administration, attended a CPAC convention to see if he wanted to become a Republican, and considered a run for Congress. Lots of interesting stuff to write about in his young life.

Gerald’s style of writing is unique. It’s not dialect, although there are dialectal elements in it; it’s not intellectual, although there are big words, complicated thoughts, and references to literature and history. There is a kind of dry humor to it as he pierces through the shield of white complacency, but there are passages that break one’s heart, as when he writes about his friend Elijah’s suicide. He is unflinchingly honest. He writes about racism, and friendship, and mentoring. He writes about manipulating the system where who you know is more important than what you know and people are easily fooled by one who has a command of the language of the ruling elite. (This reminds me of Jamila Lyiscott’s wonderful TED talk about being articulate.) I liked the book, and not knowing anything about Casey Gerald before I read it, I never knew where it was headed, so it was full of surprises for me.

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

Struck by Genius: How a Brain Injury Made Me a Mathematical Marvel

Posted by nliakos on February 7, 2019

by Jason Padgett with Maureen Seaberg (Houghton  Mifflin Harcourt 2014)

Jason Padgett was a mediocre student and a 31-year-old party boy who went to a karaoke bar with some friends one night and was violently assaulted by several thugs hoping to rob him. The traumatic brain injury (TBI) that he sustained that night left Padgett with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), synesthesia, and savant syndrome. It took him ten years to really understand all of these diagnoses; that journey is the subject of this book. But immediately following the attack, Padgett already experienced the visual “disturbances” that were to change his life and how he sees the world: “The world looked different: off-kilter, dreamlike. Everything that moved had trails of colored light following close behind it. There were triangles and squares in repeating patterns wherever I looked, from the windows to the lampposts to the street signs. . . . The glow of the streetlights seemed amplified. I could see the cars going by, little chipped shapes bouncing off their hoods.” Padgett never stopped seeing the underlying geometry of everything, even after his brain had healed. But he suddenly found himself fascinated by, and good at, mathematics, although he did not have the vocabulary to discuss it. Instead, he learned to draw exquisite copies of what he saw–pictures that helped him to understand and explain mathematical and physical concepts.

After a 3 1/2 year self-imposed exile from society during which he confined himself to his home, Jason Padgett bravely returned to the world and to school, taking classes at the local community college, where he was viewed as an eccentric. Little by little, he met people who recognized his newfound genius, and he learned about synesthesia and savant syndrome. He learned, among other things, that being born with one of these abilities, though rare, is more common than acquiring them, as he did. Jason Padgett is the only person in the world known to have acquired both synesthesia and savant syndrome as an adult.

It’s a fascinating story. You can also watch Padgett’s two TED talks: How Math Saved My Life and Alternate Realities from Relativity (TEDx Tacoma).

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Runaway Amish Girl: The Great Escape

Posted by nliakos on January 14, 2019

by Emma Gingerich (Progressive Rising Phoenix Press, 2015)

I was watching random online videos the day before yesterday, and I came upon this Megyn Kelly interview of Emma Gingerich, who was raised in an ultra-conservative Swartzentruber Amish community in Ohio and Missouri but left the community at the age of eighteen. Gingerich had written a book about her experiences, and the e-book cost only $4.49! So I bought it and started reading immediately (what I love about e-books–the ultimate impulse buy!). It’s very short, only 132 pages, and not particularly well-written; but one can make allowances for this courageous young woman who never felt like she belonged in her family or her community, and who risked everything for the freedom to drive, to go to college, to listen to music, to think for herself and to make her own decisions about dating and marriage. After all, she never had to speak or write much English until she left her Amish life behind. She had to enroll in English classes like any international student. Of course, she had to get her GED before she could fulfill her college dream; Amish schools go only until the eighth grade. She had to get a job to support herself. She had to learn how to do everything, from shaving her legs to driving a car to being a student to applying for financial aid to saying no to people who asked her for money, and much much more.

She was raped but overcame her trauma and shame to go to the police and pressed charges against her rapist, which resulted in his incarceration and later deportation, though when it happened, she writes, “I did not even know what it was called. I did not know anything about sex, which made the horrific experience even more difficult to explain to anyone, even if I had wanted to.”

In the first part of the book, Gingerich describes her life in the Amish community, where “dating” consists of chastely sharing one’s bed with a young man; this is tolerated by the parents, although they do not tolerate their unmarried daughters engaging in conversation with young men. She describes the chores she had to do, the clothing she had to wear, the pranks she pulled, the trouble she was always getting into because she would not follow the strict rules of the community, and her large family, who never really communicated with one another, let alone showed one another love.

The last few chapters focus on Gingerich’s escape, aided by acquaintances who took her in and helped her with the immediate transition (a roof over her head, getting new clothes, learning about deodorant, etc.). Soon she relocated to southern Texas, where she focused on learning English and getting an education: first the GED, then a community college degree, then a Bachelor’s (followed by a Master’s, which was in progress when the book came out). In these chapters, Gingerich also tells about her relationship with her family after she left, which surprisingly (to me) was never cut off entirely. She visited them in Missouri several times, including attending her brother’s wedding. I would have thought visiting would be discouraged, and indeed it wasn’t easy, but it did happen, and her parents seem never to have given up hope that she would return to the fold–something Gingerich never wanted to do for a minute, despite all the challenges of life “outside”.

Fascinating.

Posted in Autobiography, Memoir, Religion, Philosophy, Culture | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story

Posted by nliakos on December 15, 2018

by Hyeonseo Lee with David John (William Collins 2015)

Born Kim Ji-hae in Hyesan, North Korea in 1980, Hyeonseo Lee had a happy childhood, despite her parents’ divorce when she was a baby. She was adopted by her mother’s second husband and was given a new name, Park Min-young, the second of the seven names of the title. She only learned of her true parentage when she was a teenager. Sadly, this knowledge resulted in her alienation from her (step-)father, who had raised her lovingly as his own child. He died before she was able to reconcile with him–the first of many heart-breaking losses and misjudgments that plagued her young life.

The book is divided into three parts. Part One, The Greatest Nation on Earth, describes Lee’s early life in North Korea, when she never questioned what she was told by her parents and teachers and actually believed that North Korea was the greatest nation on earth, that it was the South Koreans who were suffering and starving, and that all Westerners were ruthless devils. Chapter 4, “The Lady in Black”, describes how as soon as they start school, North Korean children are taught to worship the Kim family: The teachers read us stories of child heroes who’d fought the Japanese during the period of colonial rule in Korea, and legends from the boyhood of Kim Il-sung–of how he’d suffered for the people’s happiness even as an infant, giving away his own food and shoes to children less fortunate. Whenever the leaders were mentioned, the teachers adopted low, tremulous voices, as if they were intoning the names of living gods. The walls displayed photographs of Kim Il-sung as a young guerrilla; Kim Il-sung surrounded by smiling orphans; Kim Il-sung in his white marshal’s uniform, as the father of our nation. He was tall and striking, and his brave wife, Kim Jong-suk, who had fought alongside him, seemed like a lady from a folktale. It was not difficult to adore them. . . . Yet alongside the brainwashing is a widespread tolerance of smuggling, black markets and bribes, and Lee’s family benefits from this lax enforcement of the laws; her mother, in particular, does illegal business with Korean-Chinese on the other side of the Yalu River. The China-North Korea border, at least in this location, is as porous as any other border around the world. This surprised me. (Although I knew that many North Koreans escaped over that border, I guess I thought it was harder than it in fact is. For small children, especially boys, it is particularly easy, and according to Lee, there are no repercussions for crossing the Yalu to play with (Korean-)Chinese kids on the other side, and when done playing, the children simply return to their homes on the North Korean side. In fact, that is why Lee herself crossed just before reaching the age of majority; she knew she would not be punished.)

In Part Two, To the Heart of the Dragon, Lee, now almost 18, the age of adult responsibilities, thoughtlessly decides that she wants to see China, just across the river from her home in Hyesan. One December night, she walks across the frozen river and knocks on the door of one of her mother’s business contacts. From there, on a whim, she decides to go and visit some unsuspecting relatives in Shenyang, a large city eight hours away. One thing leads to another, and Lee realizes that she cannot go back home. She stays with her aunt and uncle in Shenyang for two years, and almost marries a Korean-Chinese man named Geun-soo, but she runs away before the wedding. Astonishingly (due to a combination of dumb luck and quick thinking), Lee manages to avoid the awful fate that entraps so many female North Korean defectors, learns to speak fluent Chinese, finds well-paying jobs, has a serious relationship with a rich South Korean businessman, and flies to Seoul to ask for asylum in South Korea.

Part Three, Journey into Darkness, chronicles Lee’s introduction into South Korean society and her risky, expensive rescue of her mother and brother. Again, a combination of quick thinking and extraordinary good luck results in eventual success, but there are moments when the reader is sure that this is going to end badly–only the photographs of the mother and brother visiting Chicago remind one that they must have prevailed. The story of their long journey through China, to a Laotian prison, and finally to South Korea is a fascinating one. But a more profound struggle awaits once they are “free”–discriminated against by South Koreans and ill-equipped to function in that fast-paced, ultra-competitive society, they both contemplate repatriation, despite its risks. Meanwhile, Lee’s relationship with her South Korean boyfriend ends, and she begins speaking out publicly about life in North Korea and her own personal story, culminating in a TED talk in 2013.

Years ago, I taught a student from North Korea. She was a rank beginner in English (a rare occurrence in today’s globalized world), so she was unable to tell me much about her story, but she did give me a short written biography that someone had translated into (poor) English for her. Like Hyeonseo Lee, she too was able to get her daughter out to join her in South Korea. When I asked how, thinking of the dangers for young women who escape to China and end up being trafficked as prostitutes or brides of poor Chinese farmers, she dismissed my question with one word: money. And Hyeonseo Lee’s story also shows that with enough money, one can do pretty much what one wants.

A really fascinating book. I tore through it as if it were a novel.

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Until We Are Free: My Fight for Human Rights in Iran

Posted by nliakos on November 30, 2018

by Shirin Ebadi (Random House 2016)

Judge, lawyer, human rights activist, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi tells the story of her attempts to get the Iranian government to uphold their own laws, first in Iran (even after many of her compatriots had fled abroad), and subsequently from outside the country, where she now lives in exile. Believing that her status as a Nobel Prize winner will keep her safe, she takes many risks to help those who had been unjustly arrested or imprisoned. In response, the government targeted her sister, her husband, and her two daughters; her daughters had to leave Iran, and her husband left her (a heart-breaking tale of persecution, entrapment, blackmail, and imprisonment that eventually broke his spirit). Ebadi refused to give in, knowing that if she allowed herself to be silenced by threats to her family, the threats would only escalate. She and her husband lost their property in Iran, the place Ebadi still sees as her home and which she swears she will return to some day. And they lost their 35-year marriage.

Along the way, we get some basic information about Iran’s recent history and politics. Ahmedinejad, Rafsanjani, Rouhani, and others are differentiated and fleshed out a little. We are also introduced to some of the many courageous activists working within and outside of Iran to resist against the excesses of the regime, such as Noushin Khorasani,  and Haleh Esfandiari. And there is the Ministry of Intelligence  officer Mr. Mahmudi, Ebadi’s “nemesis”, who hounds her and her family mercilessly, trying to get her to stop speaking truth to power, as they say.

Sometimes she begins a paragraph by describing a particular day, a place, the weather; the reader tensely awaits something awful, like an attack on her life or the arrest of one of her daughters. These things usually don’t materialize. But the cloud under which she herself lived in Iran and the arrests of so many of her colleagues and staffers, as well as the description of her husband’s treatment in prison, is horrible enough and constitutes the most powerful aspect of the book in my view.

Ebadi discusses elections,  women’s rights, the plight of the Baha’i religious minority, the so-called Arab Spring, Iran’s support of Shi’a rebels in countries such as Syria and Yemen, and more, and describes how her views on Iran’s right to develop its nuclear power program changed after she spoke at length with Rebecca Johnson and other anti-nuclear activists at an international conference she attended in Belfast.

For American readers, it is a chilling reminder of what can happen under a dictatorship that cares nothing for the basic human rights of the people, where there are no free media or elections, no women’s or individuals’ rights, no freedom of expression–none of the freedoms and rights we in the U.S. take for granted, but which Donald Trump and others would like to take from us.

 

Posted in Autobiography, History, Memoir | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

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.

Posted in Biography, History, Memoir, Politics | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Alive, Alive, Oh! And Other Things That Matter

Posted by nliakos on October 4, 2018

by Diana Athill (W. W. Norton, orig. published in 2004)

Diana Athill was in her nineties, living in a nursing home in the U.K., when she wrote these essays about aging, dying, her grandparents’ home in Norfolk (where she spent her summers as a child), women’s fashions, life during and after the Second World War, her unconventional love life, a visit to the island of Tobago, her pregnancy and subsequent miscarriage in her forties, her fellow residents in the nursing home, Lord Byron and Thomas Boswell, and more. According to Wikipedia, Athill is still around, having turned 100 last year, so this may not have been her last book. I enjoyed it.

Favorite quote:  What I was really happy with was a lover who had a nice wife to do his washing and look after him if he fell ill, so that I could enjoy the plums of love without having to munch through the pudding.

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A Walk on the Beach: Tales of Wisdom from an Unconventional Woman

Posted by nliakos on October 2, 2018

by Joan Anderson (Broadway Books 2004)

Joan Anderson was at a pivotal point in her life, trying out life on her own away from her husband on Cape Cod, when she met Joan Erikson, wife of the psychologist Erik Erikson. Erik was in a nursing care facility in the town, and the two Joans–one in her early fifties, the other in her nineties but full of vitality and wisdom–became close friends. Together, they weathered Erik’s death, the return of Anderson’s husband and her growth into a stronger person. The memoir, purported to be about Erikson’s life lessons, is as much about Anderson’s efforts to make herself over in Erikson’s image, or at least with her mentoring. I was sometimes impatient with Anderson’s slow grasp of her mentor’s lessons, and at other times irritated by Erikson’s preachiness and tendency to criticize her friend. I often wondered what Robin, Anderson’s husband, was making of all this; even after he came back into her life, she seemed to ignore him.

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Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”

Posted by nliakos on September 20, 2018

by Zora Neale Hurston (Amistad/HarperCollins 2018; manuscript completed in 1931. Edited by Deborah G. Plant)

Zora Neale Hurston trained as an anthropologist under Franz Boas, “the Father of American Anthropology”, but she is known as a novelist for her masterpiece Their Eyes Were Watching God, among others. In Barracoon, Hurston steps back and lets her subject, Oluale Kossola/Kossula, aka Cudjo Lewis, tell his own life story in his own dialect, spelling his words to reflect his pronunciation and copying his syntax. The effect is of reading a primary source, although I guess the living Kossola was the primary source, making Hurston’s work a secondary source.

Whether primary or secondary, Kossola’s story is unique in that there are no other similar narratives of capture, slavery, liberation, and persecution quite like his. However, it is also representative of the hundreds and thousands of narratives that we will never know, because the people that lived those lives could not write about them, and no one who could write cared to ask them what they had experienced and to set it down for posterity.

Kossola lived in a village in West Africa called Banté until he was nineteen years old, when Glélé, the king of neighboring Dahomey, sent warriors to destroy the village, capture people they could sell into slavery and massacre the rest, wiping out the village. This was done; and Kossola found himself a captive, marched to Dahomey and from there to Ouidah (Whydah) in present-day Benin, where he was confined in the barracoon, the building used to keep the prisoners until a ship arrived and they could be sold. The ship which Kossola was loaded onto, the Clotilda, was built especially for this purpose by William Foster and the Meaher brothers. Transporting captured Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to sell them into slavery had long been illegal, and the Clotilde would be the last ship to complete its journey from Africa to the United States. It was 1860, and the Civil War was about to begin.

Kossola, now known as Cudjo, was enslaved in Alabama by one of the Meaher brothers, Jim, where he worked on a river boat carrying freight between Mobile and Montgomery, loading wood and freight, pumping bilge, and doing whatever needed to be done. He relates, “Oh, Lor’! Oh Lor’! Five year and de six months I slave. I workee so hard!” Cudjo and his fellows were freed by Union troops in 1865. Emancipation for them also meant homelessness and poverty. They were free, but they had no house, no land, no money. Somehow, they formed a community of mostly African-born freedmen and women, and after some years were able to purchase a piece of land from the Meahers (Cudjo commented, “Dey doan take one five cent from de price for us. But we pay it all and take de lan’.”) This became “Affican Town” (Africatown, now the town of Plateau, AL).

Cudjo met and married Seely (Celia), and they had six children together, most of whom died, some in suspicious circumstances, as Reconstruction gave way to Jim Crow in Alabama and the rest of the former Confederacy. Cudjo and Seely bore the grief of losing their children as best they could. Seely passed away in 1908. Their surviving son had married and moved away, so Cudjo spent the rest of his life alone with his memories. As Hurston tells it, he never stopped grieving for his homeland, which he called “de Afficky soil”. African-born people suffered discrimination not only from white people, but also from African-Americans. Though a pillar in his own tiny community, Cudjo never felt accepted in American society, even though he had nothing to return to in Africa, his entire family having been wiped out in the raid on Banté. The reader is saddened by Cudjo’s solitude. When Hurston conducted her interviews, he was in his eighties, already the last surviving person from the Clotilda. Apparently, those who suffered the Middle Passage together formed strong bonds among themselves. Of course, they were separated from each other upon arrival when they were sold to various people, but following the Civil War, Cudjo managed to be reunited with some of the same people he had been with in the barracoon and on the Clotilda, and it was these people who founded Africatown.

The book is 171 pages, of which only 70 are devoted to the narrative of the life of Kossola/Cudjo Lewis. An appendix including descriptions of games and transcriptions of Cudjo’s stories and parables take up another 17 pages. The remaining 84 pages are taken up by a preface by Alice Walker, a lengthy introduction by Hurston, and following the appendix, an afterword, acknowledgments, a list of the founders of Africatown, a glossary, notes and citations, and a bibliography.

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