Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for the ‘Memoir’ Category

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 Science, Memoir | 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.

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

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.


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

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.

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

2 Memoirs of Abuse: My Lobotomy and A Stolen Life

Posted by nliakos on April 11, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Autobiography, Memoir, Non-fiction | Tagged: , , , , | 4 Comments »

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

Posted by nliakos on April 4, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s

Posted by nliakos on March 31, 2016

by John Elder Robison (Crown 2007; ISBN 978-0-307-39598-6)

In the tradition of Temple Grandin’s Thinking in Pictures and Emergence: Labeled Autistic and Daniel Tammet’s Born on a Blue Day (more here), John Elder Robison has written a fascinating account of his life. Robison’s Asperger Syndrome which was not diagnosed until he was forty years old, when a therapist friend gave him a book about Asperger’s because he felt that the book “fit [Robison] to a T.” In addition to coping with his very different way of being in the world, Robison and his younger brother, the writer Augusten Burroughs, had to deal with an alcoholic father and mentally ill mother. It wasn’t easy, to say the least. Somehow, Robison managed to make it to age sixteen, when he left home for good. He was a brilliant designer of sound and light systems, despite never finishing high school, and he managed to build a career as a sound engineer for rock bands (most notably KISS), a designer of electronic toys for Milton Bradley, and finally found his niche as a repairer and restorer of high-end automobiles in Amherst, Massachusetts. He married twice and has a son. He eventually forgave his parents and forged new relationships with them as an adult. He has obviously succeeded in his life, but it has been a struggle, which he describes in this fascinating book.

Robison’s directness and honesty are refreshing and give neuro-typical readers an opportunity to perceive the world from an autistic viewpoint. My favorite chapters are “Logic Vs. Small Talk”, where Robison explains his difficulty having conversations with neuro-typicals,  and “Married Life”, where he describes how he and his wife keep their marriage strong.

I’ve just put Robison’s new book, Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening, on hold, and I can’t wait to read it!

Posted in Learning Disabilities, Memoir, Non-fiction | 2 Comments »

The Barefoot Lawyer: A Blind Man’s Fight for Justice and Freedom in China

Posted by nliakos on January 30, 2016

by Chen Guangcheng (Henry Holt, 2015; ISBN 978-0-8050-9805-1)

Do you remember hearing about Chen Guangcheng’s incredible escape from house arrest in China in 2012? I thought at the time, this is impossible…  a blind man with a broken foot–how could he have pulled this off? So I read the book to find out. It did not disappoint. The story of the escape was indeed amazing, but the story of Chen’s life as a person with a serious disability in rural China is even more amazing. Deprived of an education until he was well into his teens, and then expected to follow one of the few career paths open to the blind, Chen learned to read and write in Braille, then attended college to become a doctor of Chinese medicine, only to reject medicine for the law, which he taught himself so that he could advocate for himself and others with disabilities, and later for people who ran afoul of the One Child Policy. The sometimes violent resistance with which he was met did not frighten him. Even when he was imprisoned for seven years on a trumped-up charge, he never ceased demanding his rights and those of other people. But in China, people don’t really have any rights. There are laws, yes–Chen learned the laws and set about trying to right the wrongs that happened when they were not obeyed. But China is not a nation where everyone is equal under the law, far from it. As described in this book, China is a nation where Communist Party members–who are in charge of everything and everyone–can do pretty much whatever they want with impunity. As we know, power corrupts, and Chen saw rampant corruption in every aspect of his life. Over and over again, officials, cadres, and just plain thugs taunted Chen with his inability to force them to obey this or that law. But he never gave in, and he never stopped trying. What an inspiration!

When Chen was released from prison, he was taken straight to his village and put under a brutal house arrest for the following two years. He was forbidden from seeing or talking to anyone outside of his immediate family members, who were also harassed and oppressed because of their proximity to him. He was refused permission to see a doctor for his medical problems. He and his family could not work their land, and their few possessions were stolen. In the end, he felt that escape was his only option. Although he wanted to remain in China to continue his work, he was ultimately convinced that this would be impossible, and he and his family were able to emigrate to the United States, where he wrote this book.

I was kind of surprised at how Chen named the people (relatives, friends, neighbors, lawyers…) who assisted him in his escape, because those people are still in China and are vulnerable to reprisals by the thugs who made his life such a hell. (Similarly, I wondered that he escaped leaving his wife, his mother, and his young children behind to deal with the fury of the outwitted guards.) But really, I was mostly amazed at his courage, his integrity, and his ingenuity.



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

The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family

Posted by nliakos on January 27, 2016

by Josh Hanagarne (Gotham 2013; ISBN 978-1-59240-787-3)

This book sheds light on two worlds I have no experience with: the world of Tourette Syndrome and the world of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, aka the Mormon Church. Hanagarne grew up and lives in Utah, and he was raised as a Mormon. When he was still in elementary school, he began experiencing the tics that characterize Tourette’s, and as he grew older, they increased in severity and became more diverse. He dealt with them as best he could. He was also a nerdy kid who loved reading perhaps more than anything (although it took him many jobs and many years to discover his calling as a librarian).

Throughout the memoir, Hanagarne describes and explains, simply and clearly, aspects of his faith (including his doubts about it as well as how it was practiced in his family, his town, and his church); how it feels to tic and the many strategies he has tried to gain control of his Tourette’s (which he personifies and calls Misty); what it’s like to be a librarian working in a large public library; and his relationships with two women, Jennie and Janette, the second of whom he married. We experience his and Janette’s struggle to have children and his terror that their children could inherit his disorder. He is extremely open and honest, even when honesty must have been very difficult to achieve. He also writes about much of what he has experienced with disarming humor.

One of my favorite chapters is Chapter 10, in which Hanagarne writes about libraries and why they are essential; he is obviously in love with his job and his place of work. (I also love the way each chapter’s topics are listed according to the Dewey Decimal System, e.g., Chapter 6: 363.163 — Fraud, 613.71 — Bodybuilding, 808.5 — Voice–Social Aspects, 646.726  — Botulinum Toxin–Therapeutic Use. It reminds me of how Christopher numbers his chapters with prime numbers only in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Both books quietly stray from the traditional way of naming and numbering chapters.)

Another interesting thread is how he uses strength training as a way of controlling his tics (Strength). His relationship with his parents is also extraordinary (The Power of Family). It’s all there in the title, and I found it all fascinating. What a courageous, smart, amazing guy.


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

Stealing Buddha’s Dinner

Posted by nliakos on December 26, 2015

by Bich Minh Nguyen (Viking 2007; ISBN 987-0-670-03832-9)

Bich Minh Nguyen’s memoir of growing up as a Vietnamese American (with a Latina stepmother and stepsister) in Grand Rapids, Michigan is seen through the lens of the foods that represented the various cultures that surrounded her: Vietnamese rice cakes and cha gio; Mexican tacos and tamales; and every kind of American junk food I have ever heard of plus quite a few I have not. Food dominates even her recollections of favorite books read.

Among the descriptions of eating and obsessing about food, however, Nguyen describes a painfully shy child who longed to fit in but was awkward, nerdy, not as pretty or cool as her older sister, her stepsister, or her (mostly Dutch-American) neighbors and classmates, a child who completely bought into the pre-political correctness assumption that blond hair, white skin, blue eyes, and white bread sandwiches were automatically better than anything a blended refugee family could come up with. Her father and stepmother were not concerned with Bich’s self-esteem. Theirs was not a particularly happy marriage (in fact, for several years, they divorced but continued living in the same house), and their attitude toward child-raising was not what we would call enlightened. Still, when Nguyen visits Vietnam as an adult, as well as when she is finally reunited with her birth mother, she realizes that despite all their faults, her father and stepmother kept her safe, educated her, and gave her a better life than she might have had had she remained in Vietnam. It’s a reminder that children are pretty resilient; we can make a lot of mistakes, and they can still turn out all right.

This book shines a light on the inner life of a refugee child as she grows to womanhood. It’s a reminder that reaching the promised land, be it the United States, Germany, or some other place, is only the beginning. Growing up is challenging wherever and whoever we are; growing up in an alien place where we do not feel accepted for who we are is much harder.

Posted in Memoir, Non-fiction | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »