Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for the ‘Non-fiction’ Category

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

Posted by nliakos on January 16, 2017

by Bryan Stevenson (Spiegel & Grau trade paperback 2015; copyright 2014)

Bryan Stevenson started working with prisoners on  death row  while he was still in law school. Later, he went on to found the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), an organization which is “committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society” (from the EJI website).

In Just Mercy, Stevenson presents what he views as some of the worst abuses of our criminal justice system: the sentencing of children to life in prison without the possibility of parole,  the witch hunt for “bad mothers”, the execution of innocent prisoners due to technicalities, the corruption that allows incompetent defense or prejudiced prosecution to condemn innocent people to life in prison or capital punishment, the incarceration and abuse of people with disabilities, the awful treatment within the prison system, and more.

Chapters about the case of Walter McMillian, an African-American man on death row for a crime that was committed while he was at home hosting a fish fry for about twenty people, are interspersed with chapters narrating other cases. Thus, Walter McMillian’s story begins on page 21, when Stevenson was not yet thirty and he received a call from the judge in the case, warning him not to proceed with it, and ends with the Epilogue and Walter’s death from dementia. This reflects the reality that a single case can drag on for many years without resolution, as it works its way through the levels of the justice system. (Many of Stevenson’s cases made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, such as Miller v. Alabama, which declared the sentencing of children to life in prison without parole to be unconstitutional.)  Meanwhile, the innocent prisoner’s life is running out. It was so evident that Walter McMillian had been wrongly accused, sentenced, and imprisoned (he was sent to death row even before he was sentenced to die), that the reader can hardly believe that this case actually happened. Forget “innocent until proven guilty”. The people that arrested, prosecuted, and condemned Walter McMillian had to have known that he was innocent, yet all they cared about was “solving” the crime (The true murderer was never found.). At one point, after years of trying to get McMillian out of prison, Stevenson was told by a lawyer from the Alabama Attorney General’s office, “Bryan, it’s all going to work out, but you’ll need to wait a few more months. He’s been on the row for years, so a few more months are not going to make that much of a difference.” Oh, really? Try it yourself, Mr. Hotshot Lawyer. You will find that every single day on death row is an eternity.

One chapter that affected me even more than Walter McMillian’s tragic story was “All God’s Children”, which focuses on three cases handled by EJI:  Trina Garnett, an intellectually disabled, neglected and abused child who when she was fourteen unintentionally set a house on fire, which resulted in the death of two other children; Ian Manuel, convicted of armed robbery and attempted homicide when he was thirteen; and Antonio Nuñez, charged with kidnapping and attempted murder at fourteen. In all three cases, older children involved in the same crimes received lighter sentences because they implicated the younger ones, while Trina, Ian, and Antonio were all found guilty and sentenced to life without parole (in other words, sentenced to die in prison).  Stevenson points out that adults convicted of similar crimes usually receive much lighter sentences and eventually serve only ten or twenty years before being released. Children who are sentenced and incarcerated in the juvenile justice system are usually released after spending some period of time in juvenile custody, perhaps when they turn eighteen or twenty-one. But these three minor children were all prosecuted as adults, and all received life without parole. Ian Manuel actually spent eighteen years in solitary confinement, supposedly for his own protection. Even when the victim in his case (who survived and went on to lead a normal life) requested that his sentence be reduced, the courts refused to budge. By the time the EJI took on their cases, Trina, Ian, and Antonio were “broken by years of hopeless confinement” (although Ian had somehow managed to educate himself while in solitary confinement). Following the Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama, the EJI was finally able to get their sentences reduced, but they had to serve more time added onto the long time they had already spent in prison.

Reading this book, I was constantly horrified and ashamed of what passes for “justice for all” in these United States. It’s not justice, and it’s definitely not for all.

See also The New Jim Crow.

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

This Is Getting Old: Zen Thoughts on Aging with Humor and Dignity

Posted by nliakos on January 2, 2017

by Susan Moon (Shambhala 2010)

I just loved this book of essays about getting older, written by a Zen Buddhist American woman in her mid-sixties (my age). Susan Moon is direct, honest, and funny. She writes about the challenges of aging (physical deterioration, memory loss, loneliness…) as well as its joys (human relationships, grandchildren…). She writes from a Buddhist perspective, about her changing body and mind, her mother, her friendships, her self-doubts.

I suppose that most people under sixty would not appreciate this book, although reading it might give them the gift of an older person’s perspective on life, which would not be a bad thing.

Some favorite quotes:

My mind, like my bladder, is shrinking with age so that it doesn’t hold as much at once.

In a way, it adds interest to life to have these small problems to work on. Taking care of oneself becomes a more intricate project and sharpens one’s problem-solving skills. My knees talk to me, and I have to respond. The old bones provide a kind of companionship. It’s not really me who needs things like handrails and hiking poles, it’s my knees; I make these arrangements for them, because we’re family.

It’s not my fault when I have a senior moment any more than it was my fault when my hair turned gray. I’m just a human being, after all. I’ve had a lifetime of junior moments, when one word follows another in logical–and boring–succession, when each action leads to the next appropriate action. For countless years, I have remembered to bring the pencil with me when I go downstairs to use the pencil sharpener. I think I’ve earned the right to break free from the imprisonment of sequential thinking. A senior moment is a stop sign on the road of life.

Gradually, without noticing when it happened, I seem to have let go of trying [to find a mate]. It’s a big relief, I can tell you, not to be scanning the horizon for a spiritually minded socially engaged emotionally intelligent senior bachelor every time I leave the house.

The main thing is, I’m not separate, I only think I am. I’m one of the jewel-like nodes in Indra’s Net, that vast spiderweb of the universe. I’m not a thing at all, I’m an intersection where filaments connect. Pluck me out and the whole thing falls apart, like a knitted shawl unraveling from one dropped stitch. The universe holds me and the universe needs me. No way is the universe going to leave me for a younger woman.

I think of time as the landscape I’m traveling through on a train, and the train is my life. I can only see what’s outside the window. Yesterday was Naperville, Illinois; today is Grand Junction, Colorado; tomorrow will be Sparks, Nevada. I just see the piece that’s framed by the train window, but it’s all there at once, all those places, the whole continent.

 

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Goldberg’s Angel: An Adventure in the Antiquities Trade

Posted by nliakos on December 18, 2016

by Dan Hofstadter (Farrar Straus Giroux 1994)

Goldberg is Peg Goldberg, an American art dealer who bought some illegal Christian mosaics (including the eponymous angel) from a Cypriot church and was subsequently sued by Cyprus and lost the mosaics. Hofstadter is a writer who took an interest in the case and somehow managed to travel enough to interview most of the main characters in the very Byzantine (haha) plot. The book did not really hold my interest (While reading it, I read several other books), and perhaps because of that, I found it difficult to keep all the details and different people straight in my mind. I came away feeling rather depressed by the eagerness of people who plunder works of art in order to make money. My favorite part of the book was the last part, in which Hofstadter recounts a “tall tale or dream” in which he finally catches up with the mysterious Turk Aydin Dikmen, who seems to hold all the answers to the mystery.

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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).

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

The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image

Posted by nliakos on November 21, 2016

by Leonard Shlain (Penguin/Arkana 1998; ISBN 0-670-87883-9)

From time to time, I read a book that really upends my worldview. This is such a book. Leonard Shlain tells the story of human history through a neurologic lens; that is, how the increasing dominance of the left hemisphere over the right over the past five thousand years has predisposed the human race to aggression, mistrust of the female and of images. And the cause of this left hemispheric hijacking is literacy–in particular, alphabetic literacy. Over and over, throughout Western history as well as in Eastern cultures (e.g., India, China, Southeast Asian countries), he shows that once a culture adopts an alphabet and literacy spreads among its population, goddess worship declines (or is done away with completely), art comes under attack, and women’s rights are abrogated.

To the right hemisphere of the brain, Shlain attributes mysticism, emotion, appreciation of music, art, and dance, being, irrationality, intuition, love, faith, gestalts, concreteness, all-at-once perception (like facial recognition), metaphor, and non-verbal aspects of communication. The right hemisphere is most often dominant in women, who are the healers/nurturers of the human race.

To the left hemisphere, he attributes linearity, abstract thought, language, numbers, analysis, action (doing), reason, sequence, science, and  a sense of time. It is most often the province of men, the hunters/killers of the human race.

The really original part of Shlain’s hypothesis is to attribute the rise of the left brain to the detriment of the right to the invention of writing, especially alphabetic writing, which is not only abstract but forcibly linear and sequential. The process of learning to read (not the content of what is read), he argues, actually changes the human brain over time, rendering it more prone to abstract, linear thought and eventually to bellicosity, aggression, and suppression of images and women’s rights. Again and again across human history, he shows how war, persecutions and massacres (think the Spanish Inquisition, the slaughter of first peoples in the Americas, the 15th-17th century witch-hunts in Europe and America, the Holocaust) follow increases in literacy.

In the Epilogue, Shlain confesses, “As a writer, as an avid reader, and as a scientist, I had the uneasy feeling that I was turning on one of my best friends” as he “expended considerable ink bashing the left brain”. Reading his book, I often felt longstanding assumptions being turned on their heads–for instance, the assumption that monotheism represented some sort of progress (but Shlain points out that the first alphabetic people, the Jews, in recognizing one all-powerful male God, were rejecting the divine feminine principle that had checked the hunter/killer in us for millennia).

Each chapter in the book focuses on a left/right dichotomy:

  • Image/Word (an introduction to the book’s thesis)
  • Hunters/Gatherers (male and female roles in ancient prehistoric societies; the beginnings of language)
  • Right Brain/Left Brain (what each hemisphere is good at)
  • Males: Death/Females: Life (prehistoric human societies; the agricultural revolution)
  • Nonverbal/Verbal (how the left-right balance shifted to left dominance; how speech differs from written language)
  • Cuneiform/Marduk (early Mesopotamian peoples, who created the first written language we know of, and their creation myth–the horrific slaying of the goddess Tiamat by the god Marduk)
  • Hieroglyphs/Isis (ancient Egypt, where writing was pictorial and women enjoyed high status)
  • Aleph/Bet (ancient Hebrews and their alphabet, which Shlain speculates was the first in the world)
  • Hebrews/Israelites (musings on the Exodus and how Hebrew society was transformed by the Old Testament: “The miracle, I believe, was  the reduction of graphic symbols from  thousands to two dozen.” The Israelites’ hostility toward images)
  • Abraham/Moses (more Jewish history: Abram/Abraham, Yahweh, Jacob, Joseph in Egypt, Moses and the Exodus, the writing down of Yahweh’s commandments)
  • Thera/Matzah (the Exodus again; how the eruption of Thera’s volcano could have been the cause of some of the miracles described therein)
  • Adam/Eve (musings on who wrote the Old Testament; different versions of Biblical stories; early gods and goddesses)
  • Cadmus/Alpha (Prince Cadmus introduced alphabetic writing to the Greeks; misogyny among the ancient Greeks; the Old testament and the Iliad)
  • Sappho/Ganymede (sexual excess, homosexuality, and bisexuality in ancient Greek culture; as opposed to the rather straitlaced Israelite culture)
  • Dionysus/Apollo (the right-brained/left-brained dichotomy in classical Greek mythology)
  • Athens/Sparta (Greek myths that illustrate women’s loss of power and prestige; the increasing sexism of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle)
  • Lingam/Yoni (ancient Indians’ views of books, images and the divine feminine)
  • Birth/Death (the Buddha and the religion he founded; Buddhist views on images and women; comparison with Hinduism)
  • Yin/Yang (how to reconcile Chinese patriarchy with the equality of the female principle as evidenced by the yin/yang circle; musings on the Chinese writing system and how it differs from an alphabetic system)
  • Taoism/Confucianism  (how Lao-tzu resisted writing while Confucius embraced it, eventually winning out–as a religion with a sacred book always wins out over one with only an oral tradition; how the writing down of Lao-tzu’s aphorisms transformed his belief system into something much different)
  • B.C./A.D. (Alexander the Great, the early Roman Empire; Judaism in the Roman Empire)
  • Jesus/Christ (how the right-brained ideas of Jesus turned into the left-brained, anti-woman ideas of Paul
  • Death/Rebirth (how Paul conceived of the new religion that would become Christianity)
  • Patriarchs/Heretics (early Christian history: misogynistic Orthodox vs.  more egalitarian Gnostics [Shlain: “The Orthodox/Gnostic struggle was at its core a conflict between words and images”]; Montanus, Valentinus, Tertullian, Jerome, and Augustine, and how they corrupted Jesus’ original message)
  • Reason/Madness (the Jewish revolt against the Romans; why the early Christians accepted and even sought martyrdom; how alphabet literacy was instrumental to the spread of Christianity)
  • Illiteracy/Celibacy, 500-1000 (after the fall of the Roman Empire, literacy waned and female rights resurged; the pro-feminine Age of Chivalry; the rise of the cult of Mary; the demonization of the feminine in the devil [a concept original to Christians]; Christian ascetism; Benedict and the invention of all-male monastic communities, which “did more to undermine the position of medieval women than any other social institution”)
  • Muslin Veils/Muslim Words (the predictable loss of freedom for Arab women once the Arabs got their own sacred book, the Quran; how the illiterate Prophet’s views of and behavior with women were corrupted by later literate Muslims who wrote the Hadith; how face veiling undermines the right hemisphere; the history and geography of female genital mutilation and how it is tied to literacy rates)
  • Mystic/Scholastic, 1000-1300 (the Crusades and the resulting rediscovery of Classical learning; women’s prestige and rights at a high point in Europe; how Pope Gregory VII began to replace medieval feminine values with masculine ones; enforced celibacy and misogyny [along with promoting literacy]; Abelard and Heloise; the mass murder of the Cathars and Albigensians, Christians with a more feminine, tolerant orientation; the beginnings of the Inquisition; Scholasticism [a balanced right/left philosophy]; Hildegard von Bingen vs. Thomas Aquinas)
  • Humanist/Egoist, 1300-1500 (how Gutenberg’s printing press set the stage for exploding literacy; the Renaissance and its anti-female bias; the difference between male and female advice, and what happens when men lack female advisers; six Popes whose reigns “constitute one of the most dramatic examples of sustained folly in recorded history”; the corruption of the Church which led to the Protestant Reformation)
  • Protestant/Catholic (Martin Luther’s revolution; imageless, drab Protestantism versus Catholic images and colors; Protestant views of the female; John Calvin, who was even more misogynistic than Luther)
  • Faith/Hate (reigns of terror, religious persecution, the Anabaptists, how reading the Bible for themselves transformed European peasantry, religious wars, the Spanish Inquisition, the collision between literate Europeans and native Americans after Columbus’ “discovery”; Henry VIII and the Church of England; the repression of the Huguenots in France; the Italian Inquisition; Protestants vs. Catholics in the Netherlands; Africans and slavery. “Taken as a whole, the religious wars that wracked Europe in the 150 years after the printing press had transformed European culture can be viewed as a sort of mass madness.”
  • Sorcery/Science (the witch hunts of the 15th-17th centuries)
  • Positive/Negative, 1648-1899 (Darwin, the Enlightenment, Romanticism, the Industrial Revolution, the discovery of electromagnetism, the invention of photography, which “did for images what the printing press had done for written words”)
  • Id/Superego, 1900-1945 (Freud, Charlie Chaplin and the rise of images; relativity and quantum mechanics; the resurgence of the right hemisphere; surrealism in art and literature; nationalism and feminism; communism (another religion with a sacred book), Nazism and the holocaust; the power of the spoken word on the radio
  • Page/Screen, 1945-2000 (television and the Internet, which are responsible for a return to prestige of images [and not coincidentally, a resurgence of women’s rights])

In this month following the shocking election of Donald Trump to the Presidency, I wonder if Trump’s boast that he has never read a whole book, coupled with many of his supporters’ disregard of facts and reason, is a new phase of anti-literate right-brain resurgence (Shlain points out that each time a culture’s means of communication changes, a kind of madness takes over). It’s difficult to see anything positive in this particular change, but as Shlain says, when we are in the washing machine being tossed around, it’s hard to observe that the clothes are getting clean!

I really liked this book for the way it forced me to look at things in a completely new way, but I should mention that Shlain sometimes attributes cause and effect to two events without showing how he arrived at that conclusion.

Other resources:

Posted in History, Non-fiction, Religion, Philosophy, Culture | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced

Posted by nliakos on September 13, 2016

by Nujood Ali, with Delphine Minoui; translated by Linda Coverdale (Broadway Paperbacks, 2010; ISBN 978-0-307-58967-5)

Nujood Ali was a child of 9 or 10 (she does not know her birthdate) in 2008, living in poverty in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. Unable to feed his family, her underemployed, khat-chewing father arranged for her to marry a man from their ancestral village.  He claimed that the man (who was about 30 years old) had pledged “not to touch” her until a year after she got her period. This promise was quickly forgotten, and Nujood was brutally raped the night they arrived at her husband’s family home in the village, which was far from Sana’a and almost completely inaccessible. That night, and the next night, and the next. . . . despite her pleas and screams, despite her attempts to run away and hide from the man she began to call “the monster.” She was in constant pain and felt “dirty inside”. She thought of nothing but how to escape this horrible life and return to her family and her school.

Nujood got her chance on a rare visit to her family in Sana’a. She ran away and went to the courthouse, where she somehow managed to be seen by a sympathetic judge by the name of Abdo. Judge Abdo was appalled when he realized that this little pre-pubescent girl was married and suffering the worst kind of abuse. At that time in Yemen, girls could not legally marry before the age of fifteen; but according to the book, in rural Yemen, this law was frequently broken. Nujood’s case was not at all unusual. What was unusual is that Nujood refused to submit to her fate. She managed to escape; she found her way to the court (taking unfamiliar buses and a taxi), she insisted on seeing a judge, and she persisted until the divorce was granted. Following her historic divorce, the age of marriage in yemen was raised, other Yemeni girls found the courage to seek divorces from older and abusive husbands, and even an eight-year-old Saudi girl was granted a divorce. Nujood Ali is a role model and a hero for many women and girls. For herself, Nujood simply wanted to return to her family and to go back to school, where she was resumed her third-grade studies, but now with a specific career goal in mind: to become a lawyer like Shada Nasser, who represented her in court, helping other girls and women to win their rights. Fortunately, the income from this book has enabled her family to have a somewhat better life; at least, the children are no longer reduced to begging on the street.

Young adults and English language learners should be able to understand the fairly simple style and vocabulary in the book, and they will be inspired by the simple courage of this young child who refused to deny her humanity in order to follow the customs of her culture.

 

Posted in Autobiography, Children's and Young Adult, Non-fiction, Recommended for ESL or EFL Learners | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Posted by nliakos on September 12, 2016

by Benjamin Franklin (Dover Thrift Editions, copyright 1996, ISBN 978-0-486-29073-7; originally published posthumously by J. P Lippincott, 1868)

I don’t remember having read Franklin’s Autobiography before, but it should be on all Americans’ required reading list. I bought my Dover Thrift Edition for a whopping $2 at the Benjamin Franklin Museum in Philadelphia earlier this summer (B&N and Amazon both list it at $3.60.). It has 136 pages of small, closely set type, and lacks the annotations that would have been helpful in establishing and explaining the context for the people and events described by Franklin, but even lacking these, it is fascinating reading and appeals even to a modern reader who has forgotten much (and never knew a lot to begin with).

The Autobiography began as a letter written to Franklin’s son with the aim of explaining how Franklin’s own success in life was achieved, in the hope that his descendants might “find some of [the ways he achieved success] suitable to their own situations, and therefore fit to be imitated.”  He describes his early life, how he became a printer, his escape from Boston to Philadelphia at the tender age of seventeen, and his rise to prominence in the colony of Pennsylvania. He does not omit behavior of which he was not proud; for example, he writes how when he went to England, he never wrote to his girlfriend, Miss Deborah Read; believing he had forgotten her (as he probably had), she married someone else, with whom she was unhappy. Later, after that marriage ended, she and Franklin became close again, and he married her in 1730. He wrote, “We throve together, and have ever mutually endeavor’d to make each other happy. Thus I corrected that great erratum as well as I could.” Later in life, Franklin, by then a kind of elder statesman, was persuaded to finish and update the autobiography. He then added Parts Three and Four, but was unable to finish them before he died, so the Revolutionary War and its aftermath are unfortunately not included.

It is astonishing to think of Franklin’s many achievements: Philadelphia’s fire department, public library, hospital, the academy that eventually became the University of Pennsylvania, the American Philosophical Society… He published a newspaper (the Pennsylvania Gazette) and almanac, printed paper money for the colony, served in the colony’s militia and supplied the British army with provisions during the French and Indian War, was Pennsylvania’s ambassador to England, transformed the American postal system, invented the Franklin stove, bifocals, counterfeit-proof paper money, and more…. The list goes on and on (not all of it included in the Autobiography, which he never managed to finish; see this timeline for a complete list). I was reminded of Ayla, the character in Jean M. Auel’s Earth’s Children series, who domesticated the first dog and horse, invented surgical stitches and a host of other things, and almost single-handedly created human civilization. Only Franklin was a real person; he actually did all those things.

Franklin considered himself an honest, hard-working man of integrity who never tried to profit from his position of influence–which is why, he claims, he was able to wield so much influence; people respected him and trusted his judgment. He worked hard at being a virtuous person. He avoided alcohol, meat, gambling and other vices. If you read his Autobiography, you will wish you could have met this extraordinary man.

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

About Alice

Posted by nliakos on September 8, 2016

by Calvin Trillin (Random House 2006; ISBN 978-1-4000-6615-5)

This is the first book I’ve read by Calvin Trillin; by 2006, he had written 24 of them, of which a number feature his wife, Alice. This tiny volume, only 78 pages long, is a tribute to Alice, who died in 2001, a victim of radiation therapy, which saved her from lung cancer in 1976 and permitted her to see her daughters grow up and get married, but ultimately destroyed her heart.  Alice was a beautiful person, inside and out, and Trillin’s tribute to her is very moving. It makes me want to read more of Trillin’s work, as well as Alice’s article, “Of Dragons and Garden Peas”, which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1981 and is still a resource in some medical school courses.

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The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Olympics

Posted by nliakos on August 27, 2016

by Daniel James Brown (Penguin 2013 , ISBN978-0-14-312547-1)

If you enjoyed Chariots of Fire, you will love this story of the University of Washington crew who won gold at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, to the dismay of Hitler and his Olympic organizers who did their best to put the American (and British) crew at a disadvantage while favoring the German and Italian crews. You will also learn a lot about rowing, shell construction (the long, narrow boats are called shells), the Depression, the rise of the Nazis and their calculated use of the Berlin Olympics to appear legitimate in the eyes of the world, the rowing coaches, and the young men, undergraduates at the University of Washington, who powered the Husky Clipper to victory in Berlin despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Brown focuses his attention on Joe Rantz, a young man who grew up motherless and in poverty and was abandoned by his father and stepmother when he was fifteen. The story of how Joe managed to finish high school and then put himself through college is truly amazing. He never lost sight of his dreams: of marrying his girlfriend Joyce Simdars, of making the U of Washington rowing team and later of making it to the Olympics, and of graduating from the university. Brown was able to interview Rantz at length before he died in 2007, with the result that he could accurately describe Joe’s thoughts and the emotional highs and lows of eighty years ago.

Brown’s description of the race for the gold in Chapter 18 had me on the edge of my seat (reading in the Metro on the way home from the Shakespeare Free-for-All, where we had seen a wonderful performance of The Tempest). There were so many strikes against the Americans during that 2,000-meter race that it seems impossible that they could have won it; yet win it they did. What a story! No wonder this book has been on the Washington best-seller list for many weeks!

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

When Breath Becomes Air

Posted by nliakos on August 16, 2016

by Paul Kalanithi (Random House 2016; ISBN 9780812988406)

Paul Kalanithi was a 26-year-old neurosurgeon in his last year of residency, with a bright future ahead of him, when he was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. In the little time remaining, he worked until he was no longer able to do so, and he wrote this book. Abraham Verghese, who knew Kalanithi slightly, wrote the Foreword.

The first part, “In Perfect Health I Begin”, chronicles Kalanithi’s early life, his decision to become a doctor, his time in medical school, and his marriage to a fellow medical student. I like memoirs, and I’m interested in how people become doctors, so I liked this part. (But I still don’t get how they are transformed from naive first-years into residents performing operations.)

The second part, “Cease Not till Death”, describes Kalanithi’s experience as a patient in the same hospital where he works (then used to work). He explores his evolving understanding of life and death. As the cancer inexorably destroys his body, he examines his relationships with his doctors and with his wife, describes his changing states of mind, and shares the joy he experiences cuddling and playing with his daughter, born eight months before his death in 2014. There are plenty of lessons to gained in this part. In some ways it is similar to Tuesdays with Morrie and The Last Lecture of Randy Pausch. It is true that thoughtful people facing their own imminent death have much to tell those of us who can still pretend that we are immortal–at least, our own ends are likely far enough in the future that we need not confront them. We avoid thinking about death until we are forced to think about it.

Rounding out the book is an Epilogue written by Lucy Kalanithi, detailing her husband’s last weeks and days. That part made me cry.

Like Tuesdays with Morrie, this would be a good book to reread every so often as a reminder to cherish each day we are given and each loved one with whom we share our journey through life.

Advanced English language learners will enjoy this book, which is beautifully written and also quite short, as the author did not live to finish it.

 

 

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