I first read Maus in March of 2011. I remember approaching it with some trepidation - after all, this book is in a lot of lists and has even won the P...moreI first read Maus in March of 2011. I remember approaching it with some trepidation - after all, this book is in a lot of lists and has even won the Pulitzer. What if I didn't get the "greatness" of this book? When I finished it, however, I loved it. This book blew my mind in a way no other graphic book did but when I sat down to review it, I couldn't for the life of me string two words together to form a coherent review. I eventually decided not to review it. Some books are great, and it is enough to say that.
Last year, I reread Maus. That's rare for me - I rarely reread and if I do, it is always the Harry Potter books that get that honor. So I'm not sure what made me want to reread this one, though wanting to read MetaMaus: A Look Inside a Modern Classic, Maus after, may have something to do with it. I reread Maus and rediscovered how amazing this book is. Again though, I couldn't put a review together to say all I wanted to. But I'm giving it a try this time.
Maus is a graphic memoir/biography written by Art Speigelman about his father's WW2 experience and Art's years interviewing his father for the details. Art's father, Vladek was a Holocaust survivor, who managed to survive the unspeakable horrors with his wife, Anja. They lost their first son, Richie, to the genocide - the son who was now a photo on a mantel, and was often this idea of a perfect son causing Art to bristle at that. Art was born after the war and had no idea of the profundity of the life his family led before the war though he knew that they were survivors.
Maus is both Art's and Vladek's story. On the one side, Art narrates his father's story, as told to him by his father, beginning from his marriage to Anja to the end of the war. Theirs is a story of intense suffering. After managing to ride out the initial calls to camp, they were eventually brought to Auschwitz, where they were separated, each with no idea of whether the other had survived.
On the other side, in listening to and narrating Vladek's story, Art begins to feel several negative emotions. He feels that he didn't achieve much, considering everything that his father had been through. He feels annoyed that he is not a Mr. Fixit, while his father has an innate knack for how things work. He cannot stomach his father's miserliness, even though his father learned to stock and hoard after seeing the value of things in WW2. Art also gets bouts of depressions while he wades through his father's recordings and looks to a psychologist-friend to help him out.
During my second time with this book, I found some sections I didn't recollect. Part of it is because who remembers everything about a book? But part of it is also because every snippet in the book contains several layers, and it generally takes several rereadings to get it all. I even reread some sections a third time while reading MetaMaus, and found even more things to wonder about. This isn't a complicated graphic book. But it is a very well-made one with only the important stuff jumping at you at first read and then more elements of the situation becoming obvious on rereads. Art's use of animals to characterize in Maus is now legend. And in MetaMaus, he explains more about why he did that. It wasn't hard at all to look behind the mask and to empathize with the suffering mouse.
There is so much about Vladek that is endearing. A lot of his personality was born through his experiences in WW2. As Art mentions once, I did feel that Vladek was incredible lucky as well. He was resourceful, and had a few useful talents and contacts that helped him a lot at Auschwitz. Still, that is not to say that he didn't suffer. His wife wasn't that lucky, but she thrived in her own way. They both lose a lot though. There are some truly heartbreaking scenes in this book, such as when Vladek's father was registering to get papers along with other Jews, he decides to skip over to the "wrong side" to join his daughter and her four kids when he saw that they were going to Auschwitz.
If you haven't read Maus yet, you absolutely have to. Whether you read graphic books or not, whether you are tired of WW2 stories, whether the mouse and cats in books bother you, Maus is a book that is very accessible, moving, tragic, and empowering.(less)
Having read and loved Raina Telgemeier's Drama, I was eager to read her Smile, which was really the only other book of hers that I'd heard about. (Ima...moreHaving read and loved Raina Telgemeier's Drama, I was eager to read her Smile, which was really the only other book of hers that I'd heard about. (Imagine my wonder though when I discovered today that she has a whole series under her name - The Baby-Sitters Club, which luckily, my local library has the whole set of!) As soon as I finished Drama, I requested Smile from PaperBackSwap. I received my copy last night and devoured it in two sittings, and that too only because I had to step out on an errand.
Smile has every bit the same style of fun graphics that I loved the most about Drama. While Drama was fiction, Smile is a graphic memoir. When Raina was in sixth-grade, she tripped near her porch when racing with her friends and broke her two front teeth. One of the teeth fell out while the other went all the way into her gums and lodged itself there. (Yes, I cringed heavily during this phase. A tooth getting pushed into the gums is a spooky thought.) This harrowing incident was going to send Raina on a four-year trip through the world of dentists, periodontists, and other different kinds of -dontists, enough to upset her a lot about her physical appearance. Considering that she is also entering the world of teenhood, the accident couldn't have come at a worse time.
Smile was a lot of fun to read, mainly because Telgemeier laces her story with humor. At the same time, it isn't hard to see how much the whole incident hurts her. It doesn't help that her friends love ridiculing her, not giving her the support that she craves. She also learns first-hand the effect of smiling at other people. However, I struggled with her narrating style. There were sudden pauses in the story that seemed very jarring to me and when I expected more explanations at certain points, none came. It wasn't too big a deal really - Telgemeier makes up for it with her awesome graphics that definitely articulate the book Raina's feelings and worries very well.
And now, I'm off to post this book back on PaperBackSwap and pick up her series.(less)
By now, Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken has been on countless award lists and reader best-of lists. It has even won quite a few awards and after reading...moreBy now, Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken has been on countless award lists and reader best-of lists. It has even won quite a few awards and after reading Unbroken, it isn't hard to see why. I waited a good three years before trying to read Unbroken because of the tremendous hype that followed this book (for good reason). I listened to the first quarter of this book in the car by myself and caught up with the rest of it with the husband while on a road trip to New York / Niagara.
Laura Hillenbrand has another hit book under her name - Seabiscuit: An American Legend, which I haven't read yet but I did watch the movie based on this book, a long time ago. So long ago that I didn't like the movie because it was about horses (I never did like watching movies about animals as a kid unless they were animated). Unbroken is as different as can be from Seabiscuit, though both are set against the same backdrop (World War 2). Louis Zamperini, the protagonist of Unbroken, grew up wild and defiant, always getting into trouble and disappointing his teachers and parents. His brother, Pete, taught him to channel his wild energy into running, an exercise that bored him initially but soon became his constant obsession and escape. He was such a fast runner that he was breaking records left, right and center. He had his eyes set on the 1936 Olympics, but failed miserably in his race due to poor fitness levels and overeating. (Honestly, this is one aspect of the book that baffled me. How could a person who had trained so hard and dreamed so much about the Olympics stumble so easily at the eleventh hour?) He decided that he had learned enough about the Olympics that he was going to aim for the next Olympics. There was not going to be another one. The war had other plans for him.
Louis enlisted in the Army Air Corps and was stationed in Hawaii. A particular bombing mission had destroyed his plane and so, one day, Louis accompanied his pilot Phil and a few other crew members on a particularly unfit plane called the Green Hornet on a search-and-rescue mission. Unfortunately for them, their plane had some serious hiccups and plummeted them straight into the middle of the Pacific ocean. With only three survivors (Louis, Phil and their bombadier, Mac) coming up to get on to a raft and no idea of where they were or in which direction they were drifting, their chances of survival were slim.
Most of the rest of the book focuses on that raft journey and the following capture and torture in Japan. To summarize thus, is to belittle this book, because in reality, what followed was an unbelievable story of survival, endurance, and human cruelties. If this was fiction, I would have probably said that the author made excessive use of manipulation, coincidences and graphic descriptions. The fact is most definitely stranger and usually more horrific than the fiction, and Louis' story proves that. How he survived the intense torture at the Japanese PoW camp, especially considering the sadistic interest a certain warden, Mutsuhiro Watanabe, had on him, is a testament to his (and other PoWs') will to survive. Watanabe, also called as The Bird by inmates, was bipolar. He would be exceedingly charming one instant and fly into a terrible rage the next. Anyone who had his attention, usually benefited from his debilitating torture methods.
Hillenbrand writes with creativity and intrigue. It is hard to put down the book, or in my case, stop the audio at any point without listening to one more sentence. The narrator, Edward Herrmann, also did a great job of narrating Louis' story with all the right inflections, emotions and tones. Still, most of the book was more a narration than a character sketch. Louis' actions let us see the person he is but to me, only the beginning and the end of the book portrayed the most detailed sketches of his persona. Somehow, while he was at war, the narrative becomes less personal and more journalistic, so that, I could never really be sure about what he was thinking or how he was coping, other than the obvious answer of "Not well at all".
The last few chapters, where we learn about the effect of the war on Louis, were clearly the hardest to read. Just as in the case of so many men who went to war, the pre-war Louis had vanished. There was none of that determination, persistence, commitment or happiness that used to define him. There was only despair, alcoholism, rage and depression, all of which worked to destroy him slowly. Hillenbrand eloquently paints a picture of self-destruction, which is obvious to all but Louis.
In a nutshell... Unbroken is one of those books that left me thinking and Wiki-ing for a long time after finishing the book.(less)
I read Bossypants four months ago. For some reason, I have been postponing my review since I first wrote it couple of months back. Not that I am unsur...moreI read Bossypants four months ago. For some reason, I have been postponing my review since I first wrote it couple of months back. Not that I am unsure of it or it was controversial or I had any such juicy reactions. Bossypants simply didn't fascinate me. This is the not the first time I was listening to the book though. I had first played the audiobook in my car two years ago when I went on a short drive - I did get to the halfway point before I had to return the book. I remember enjoying the book tremendously then - so it surprises me that I didn't like it too much this time around.
I really like Tina Fey. The husband and I watched Admission recently, and while the movie isn't award-winning material, it certainly was a nice entertaining way to spend a late evening. She is certainly funny - hilariously. In Bossypants, she narrates so many funny anecdotes that I ended up feeling that I had been living a very unfunny life. She talks about pretty much everything in this book - a lot of it on the sets of Saturday Night Live. But there's also a good chunk of glimpses into her private life - about female topics, college romances and teenage obsessions.
Despite how funny she was, I found most of her humor very self-deprecating. Depending on my mood, I find that brand of humor either very entertaining or very depressing. If you look through all my reviews of books boasting of self-deprecating humor, you'll find that I either really loved it or really hated it. But one thing is usually consistent - if I come across a lot of it at one go, I rarely ever like it. The other issue with me was that I have never really watched much of Tina Fey. Other than seeing occasional clips here and there, for the most part, she is just a name I know but whose work I am not too familiar with. Maybe because of that, I could never get fully interested in Fey's anecdotes. It felt like listening to someone I don't know talk about her day. If you are a Tina Fey fan, you'll probably enjoy it more than I did, that is if you haven't already read it yet.(less)
Elie Wiesel is not a new name in the book world. I don't remember when I first heard of him - all I know is that as soon as I started following the so...moreElie Wiesel is not a new name in the book world. I don't remember when I first heard of him - all I know is that as soon as I started following the social world of books, everyone thrust Night at me. When I heard words like moving, amazing, profound, associated with this book, I imagined a hefty volume filled with lots of sad notes. When my copy arrived at home by mail (few years back), the size raised my eyebrows - this book is real slim! And finally, when I got to it early this year, I was even more surprised that although this book is sad, it is not in the written-to-make-you-cry manner.
Every time I read a Nazi concentration camp book like this one, I end up wondering how I would have fared, had I been born Jewish in Nazi Europe during WWII. It's a hard pill to swallow - every book I read amplifies the image of the torture in my mind manifold. Each time, I end up feeling that I know enough about this era, but the next book comes along to prove me wrong. What saddens me the most is the parts where people helplessly watch their own loved ones die, unable to do anything about it. I'm the fiercely protective and willing to fight person when it comes to people I love, so a situation that leaves me unable to do that is pretty hard to read about.
Night is Elie Wiesel's account of how the Holocaust impacted him and his family. Wiesel, who grew up very devout, is tormented by memories of the war and cannot understand why the God he loves would steal his family from him in so cruel a way. He talks about how he ended up there, how he and his father stayed with each other and how fate had different plans for them.
This is not my first experience with Wiesel. His eloquent phrases and thought-provoking stream-of-consciousness will make any reader think. I usually don't enjoy stream-of-consciousness books. But the first book I read by him, The Sonderberg Case, was full of it and it still managed to blow my mind completely, so much so that you can see it on the right side of my blog as a WOW! book. He has a way of raising even the most obvious points in a very new perspective. Even if you know how Night ends, you will root for Wiesel and his father throughout. Without giving word to his emotions, he makes his feelings clear. He talks about oh-crap moments with simplicity and no resentment but as a reader, I said oh-crap. He talks about the tragic moments very matter-of-factly, but as a reader, I cried for him.
As soon as I finished this book, I bought the next two books in the trilogy - Dawn and Day. I was disappointed to find that they weren't really Wiesel's account during the war but more fictional stories revolving around the same themes raised in the first book. Still, Wiesel's writing is pretty hard to resist so I hope to read them soon.(less)
Soon after finishing We Bought a Zoo, I began to fancy adopting some really crazy project. Like buying a zoo or a restaurant. Or a big farm. Or living...moreSoon after finishing We Bought a Zoo, I began to fancy adopting some really crazy project. Like buying a zoo or a restaurant. Or a big farm. Or living 100% on homemade food. Of course, I wouldn't do any of those. At least not in the forseeable future. But reading this book did get me thinking about how wonderful it would be to take on such a huge project and watch it arrive at fruition.
I first heard about this book after the movie based on it and of the same title was released. There are typically two simultaneous reactions I have to books like these: 1. What? They bought a zoo? They are absolutely nuts! 2. But, how wonderful it is - to buy something that's on the verge of extinction and to transform it into something beautiful? *go starry-eyed*
So, when I saw this audiobook in the library, I had to take a crack at it. The author, Benjamin Mee, and his wife, Katherine, saw the ad for a rundown zoo and applied for it. Their application was rejected and then they promptly forgot about it. Until they chanced upon another ad for the same zoo, a few weeks later, this time with the implication that the animals may be killed if the zoo gets no buyers. This time, their application was accepted and they became the new owners of the zoo.
A lot of the book focuses on the challenges the new owners face at the zoo. The workers at the zoo are not used to giving their opinions and Mee tries to change that. There is a lot of redesign work involved - enclosures that need to be moved, animals that are better off at other zoos, even rethinking which animals can be allowed to interact due to jealousy or compatibility issues. The zoo also brought with it a lot of baggage, thanks to issues under the previous owner and simply poor execution.
There's also the animal aspect of the book. Owning a zoo means coming in contact with a whole host of animals - from the timid to the murderous ones. It also means forming a bond with many of them, be it with a jaguar or a tiger. The author also points out the "special" animals - those that are endangered and need to be bred in captivity to continue their species. And then there are those that are released into the wild - after years of being within closed enclosures, this is not a natural concept for any of the animals.
The other focal point of the book was Katherine. She was diagnosed with a brain tumor shortly before the zoo was purchased. The tumor was successfully removed but there was an increased risk that it would come back. And kill her. It did come back more vehemently than before and the decline of Katherine was a pretty hard part to listen to. Mee talks about his emotions while grappling with the danger of losing Katherine without making it over-dramatic (although one can be excused for behaving any way when they are losing someone they love).
Much as I loved the story of this book, I wasn't a fan of the writing. I found it way too informal than I liked it to be and if I were reading this book (as opposed to listening to the audio), I would have put it down very early. We Bought a Zoo made for a wonderful book to listen to in the car - I found myself rooting for Mee when he was dealing with the challenges of the zoo and crying with him when he was battling his wife's cancer.(less)
On July 27 2008, Clark Rockefeller was to spend the day with his daughter, Reigh. Having lost custody of her to his wife, after their nasty divorce, C...moreOn July 27 2008, Clark Rockefeller was to spend the day with his daughter, Reigh. Having lost custody of her to his wife, after their nasty divorce, Clark is allowed only three supervised visits a year. This was however not going to be a regular visit. Instead, it was going to be the incident that finally unmasks this supposedly wealthy person with a famous surname. After making small conversations and pretending to be on a stroll with Reigh, he manages to violently shake off the social worker and jump into his private limousine, having duped the driver as well. After six days of a wild goose chase, Rockefeller is finally arrested. But the real story is just beginning, as the world waited to hear the story of Clark Rockefeller and his countless number of aliases and astonishing journey from a small town in Germany to a posh residence in Boston.
The Man in the Rockefeller Suit is a true story of how a man duped hundreds of people over the course of 30 years. He had taken up multiple aliases, occupations and background stories. He was barely ever questioned nor were his stories ever checked for facts. He even managed to get a visa to enter the United States and a green card to stay in the country without any roadblocks. Most surprisingly, he managed to survive 30 years without holding a job (for most of the time) - in fact, he lived like a rich man mostly. His wife never guessed that he was another man entirely, though to be fair, pseudo-Rockefeller had been living his disguise for a good long period and never gave any hints of having been anybody else. In this book, the author chronicles the story of the man behind the con - Christian Gerhartsreiter - where he was born, how he arrived in the US and what he did during his 30 years here.
I have to admit - I had never heard of the name Rockefeller before. Apparently, it's a famous surname, plus everyone in this book seemed to drop his/her jaw whenever the name Rockefeller was mentioned. I must probably be living in a cocoon. The fact that pseudo-Rockefeller took on a super-famous alias and managed to make everyone believe that he was one, was quite astounding to me. Probably, most of the people he duped didn't have the means or the desire to verify his identity. Why should they? If someone told me that they were the President's first cousin, I would just say Oh Nice. I wasn't going to contact White House to verify if it's true. Of course, there were a lot of people who mentioned, after the fact, that they always knew he was a con. Their stories usually indicated the opposite.
The Man in the Rockefeller Suit made for an intriguing read. I'm a big fan of the movie Catch Me If You Can and that's the main reason I picked this book. I guess the fact that a man managed to con people for 30 years shouldn't be too shocking. 30 years is a long enough period for anyone to establish an identity. He was Clark Rockefeller for only around 15 years - still a sufficient period to be somebody. To me, it was his extravagant lies and boastful nature that seemed too laughable. Pseudo-Rockefeller had a personality no one would want to hang out with. But apparently, a lot of women loved him. I simply felt my skin crawl whenever he tried to charm a woman - or maybe that was because of the terrible miming by the narrator.
Which brings me to one of the things that really bugged me about this book - the narrator's imitation of the protagonist was done poorly and for a long audiobook such as this one was, it got onto my nerves. Or maybe the protagonist really spoke like that. There's only so long I could sit and listen to someone's voice, especially one as annoying as pseudo-Rockefeller. I also felt that this book was way too long and at some point, I began to care less about the book.
At the end of the book, I didn't feel any more contented about all the answers that came out. I still had a ton of questions - how did this guy get the money to fund his elaborate show of richness, at least until he married a rich woman? why did he abduct his daughter when that would definitely involve the cops and bring a curtain on the long-running Rockefeller Show? - but even the author admitted that the answers to these were not available. Since the whole book was put together after interviewing the many witnesses to the rise and fall of pseudo-Rockefeller but not the man himself, I strongly felt the absence of a crucial perspective - that of the con artist himself. Having read this book, it would be hugely entertaining and revealing to read a memoir written by the criminal himself.(less)
I don't usually read celebrity memoirs. For one thing, I don't follow anyone so much that I want to know their life history. Okay, there have been tim...moreI don't usually read celebrity memoirs. For one thing, I don't follow anyone so much that I want to know their life history. Okay, there have been times when I have had this insane schoolgirl crush on some handsome actor (anyone remember the Leonardo DiCaprio craze following Titanic?) but with time, I've come to feel respect for them and nothing more. The other reason is that I don't watch so many TV shows or movies to be able to relate to any showbiz talk. So Jane Lynch's Happy Accidents was a first of sorts for me. I don't think reading this memoir is going to make me more eager to try other celebrity biographies, but I'm glad that I tried.
I wanted to read Happy Accidents because I love Jane Lynch's role in Glee. I don't think I've seen a more malevolent, cruel, racist and yet sensitive, and funny (without meaning to be) character on screen. That's a deadly combo and would be too hard to pull off, but Jane Lynch does it well. So many of her quotes have become near-pop culture (at least, I like to say that). And I wanted to read more about her, because here was an actor who looked as next-door-neighbor-like as was possible.
In Happy Accidents, Jane Lynch talks mostly about her career and her personal life. If you read the first few pages and the last few pages, you can really see that her life has changed drastically. At 14, she yearned to be actor, only to quit a school play out of fright. When she realized that she was gay, she knew that she could never ever tell anyone about it, fearing that it was bad to be so and that people will mock her. By the end, it's amazing how she has catapulted to being a very popular actress, and happily-married to a wonderful woman who she totally met by chance.
What I loved most about this book was that Jane didn't rattle off Hollywood facts and figures or talk so much about Hollywood in itself that I was able to read the book as a regular memoir. Sometimes, you could even be fooled into thinking that Jane Lynch wasn't a popular actress, if you didn't know it beforehand. Even though, I didn't know all the movies/TV shows she had acted it, it wasn't hard following her growth from acting in theater to getting some regular jigs.
But what I loved reading the most was about her personal life. Her relationship with her friends, girlfriends and boyfriends, and how she kept pushing off people and struggled with getting closer to them. Jane also talked about her homosexuality and how she stayed in the closet for a long time, because of her reluctance to embrace or accept it, even though one of her closest friends in high school was also gay; and how she began to distance herself from her family gradually because she couldn't come to admit it to them.
In a nutshell, I enjoyed this memoir. It was an easy read and funny in spots though not reminiscent of Sue Sylvester (because of course, Jane Lynch is so much nicer!) There are a lot of pictures scattered through the book spanning Jane's life from when she was very little to her more recent photos with her wife. There were some repetitions that bugged me occasionally, making me think that the book could have done with some good editing. I loved some of the stories that Jane shared from her life, and appreciated that she didn't get all preachy on the reader, but only stuck to what worked for her. But mostly, I appreciated her honesty in sharing even her innermost fears and desires, and some very embarrassing mistakes without trying to sugarcoat things on paper.(less)
This year, I seem to have read a lot of books about characters (real or fictional) who try to get to know their roots better. Some go to their native...moreThis year, I seem to have read a lot of books about characters (real or fictional) who try to get to know their roots better. Some go to their native country or the country their ancestors are from. Others reconnect with their families. I don't know if I'm semi-consciously levitating towards such books or if it's all chance. This is the second time that I'm reading a book on such a theme via the graphic medium (the first was The Complete MAUS). I was curious about how this would turn out. On one hand, this is a great medium for demonstrating the feelings and emotions of the characters. On the other hand, getting to know your roots mean a lot of introspection - not always well-displayed through pictures. Some amount of dialogue would be needed and the artist's talent determines how well he can convey that without getting too wordy.
Vietnamerica by GB Tran is an account of the author's trip to Vietnam with his parents and his discovery of his family's rich ancestral history, of which he knew nothing about, nor professed any interest in earlier. He had a vague idea that his parents had fled Saigon in the 70s, but they never talked about it. It is years later, when the author's two living grandparents die within a few months of each other, that they make the trip to Vietnam - to pay respects and to connect with their history.
There is a lot that goes on in this book. GB Tran paints a history that goes back to three generations in his family. His father's reticence and his mother's commitment to a fractious marriage are the main two issues resolved, but both are consequences of actions much older than them. We don't quite get there until the end, but the evidence is seen very early. Rather than provide a chronological approach, GB Tran links specific events or chapters by context, thereby letting the reader draw the connection between the characters. Occasionally he slips between the present and the past, thereby forging a connection between an antique object or a specific characteristic, to something in the past. I found this stress on context really worked well, because as readers, we may not remember pictures as easily as specific incidents described in words. The downside to this was that I had trouble keeping the timeline straight. Since events are linked by context more than time, the timeline wasn't always clear to me. And that's where the disjointed jumping around lost me.
At 320+ large and very colorful pages, this book is huge! There are a lot of characters, and at times, I did get them mixed up - I didn't have trouble with names, but occasionally I forgot who a specific character was, or which set of grandparents the author was talking about. Still, after a while, I did get them all straight and adapted well to the flow of the book. It's especially painful thinking how much the effect of something that happened a generation or two ago can still be felt so acutely. There's the grandfather who was pretty much absent from his son's life, but then that son grows up to be a distant and taciturn father.
Overall, I thought this was a pretty decent attempt at the exploration of one's past in graphic media. I don't think it worked as well as it could have. GB Tran's artwork is certainly very beautiful. There are vivid splashes of color across the pages. The author however doesn't appear to be actively interested in all the history - he seems to be a disinterested spectator at best. Eventually, when he does make the jump, I found it hard to believe. Still, the history of Vietnam made for rich reading. It's always nice to read about it from the local perspective.(less)
When Meghan O'Rourke's mother dies, she is totally unprepared for the grief that envelopes her. Even though, she had time to "get used" to the idea th...moreWhen Meghan O'Rourke's mother dies, she is totally unprepared for the grief that envelopes her. Even though, she had time to "get used" to the idea that her mother will be no more (a callous euphemism often suggested by the odd person outside the grief circle), it was still a crippling alternating detachment and emotion that grips her. The Long Goodbye is a novel about grief - her grief at losing her mother to cancer, but it could just as easily have been a grief about losing anyone you love intensely. How does one deal with such a universal yet highly personal phenomenon?
When I read the synopsis of this book, I was really eager to read it. I went through a brief episode of grief last year and I remember feeling terribly lost, sad and unconnected. Suddenly, I couldn't relate to anyone. I couldn't form new relationships, I began to judge people I knew by how they reacted to my sadness. Many didn't know how to, and some overdid it. So when the synopsis asked why we are still uncomfortable with someone grieving and why we are not more open about it, I might as well have been asking those questions.
Most of what Meghan wrote easily synced with me - how when she first heard the news about her mother's cancer, she would distract herself by playing games, how she soon decided to get engaged as if happy events will reverse the scenario, and how her subsequent marriage didn't take long to crumble because her husband and she couldn't really connect as well with each other in light of her mother's cancer. Her whole family was coping with similar feelings of sorrow, but they could still not talk about it - anger was a common feeling Meghan experienced during that time.
And after her mother died, it was like time stopped for her. It was like the music stopped playing and there was just this deafening silence around her. When people asked her how she felt, she quickly figured out that telling the truth will only make them uncomfortable. So she pretends everything's fine. That doesn't work as well either because she truly isn't. She searches for a metaphor to represent her mother, because even months later, the fact of her mother's death just hasn't sunk in - she still expects her mother to suddenly come and stand in front of her.
Meghan O'Rourke writes a really wonderful memoir of grief itself. It's not intended to be a theoretical look at how humans mourn, instead it's just a first-person account of how she did, and yet somehow, it feels mostly familiar. Loss is not something that we respond well to. Like the author, I am terrified of death. She recounts many episodes from her life, when she was saddened by the concept of the impermanence of life. I remember myself growing up scared of the realization. I went through a phase when if my dad was even a few minutes late to return home, I would get paranoid. She understands that believing in the afterlife can possibly do wonders, but in today's world there are probably fewer people who believe in it.
The Long Goodbye is not overly depressing, even though death and grief figure in it. Although it's written in a very personal manner, I also found it to be detached, as if Meghan was writing it from a third person's perspective, as if we were watching it happen in front of us, so I rarely felt Meghan's grief pour over me. That helped because I was able to be objective about her experiences and understand grief as a separate entity. I was fascinated with how the author yearned to get better - she was convinced that rituals like those practiced in Jewish or Chinese homes, or even public mourning would ease the matter of accepting death sooner, even though I personally don't agree with that. She mentions how the American culture is largely stilted in its display of emotions. Grief might be shared, but it is also a largely private matter. I do think, however, that more people from across the world would share this sentiment - rituals are still practiced, but people are becoming increasingly lonely and private, and families nuclear. She also feels very antagonistic towards people who don't ask her the right questions or pretend that nothing's wrong. I remember how miserable I felt when people around me went on with their lives and just oohed and aahed when they saw me sad. Much as I resented that, I couldn't pretend that they were "ignorant". It is a sad reality that we rarely know how to respond to someone in grief, and rarely does anything we do ever look "right". It's always too much or too less.
For the most part, I thought this was a wonderful memoir. If you are truly curious about reading about grief, from a first person narrative, this is a good one. You may mourn in a very different way - some people are very open about it, and some excuse themselves often to have a private cry, but in so many ways, the elements of grief are very similar - the feeling of betrayal (because something precious was snatched away from you), denial, anticipating the worst and then being in shock when it actually happens, inability to connect with anyone new or form long relationships, and a desire to learn more about the person who left you. I did cry, after all the death of a mother is never an easy matter to read about, but mostly I was curious to know how the author handled it and the innumerable references she shared about others who have grieved.(less)
I first heard of this book in Sheila's blog when she reviewed this during the Banned Books week last year. At that point, I wasn't too keen on reading...moreI first heard of this book in Sheila's blog when she reviewed this during the Banned Books week last year. At that point, I wasn't too keen on reading the book, but when I saw the movie pop up in my Netflix recommendations list, I decided to check it out. I didn't have too many expectations from it, but by the end of the movie, I loved it. Who doesn't love a rebel? And I mean a good rebel -- someone who succeeds in something when everyone else expected him/her to fail. The movie was everything about changing your destiny, and all through my life, I've never tolerated the 'fate' and 'destiny' philosophies that anyone dished out to me. I like to believe that I'm the only person who can control my life -- of course there's the butterfly effect and then there is the case where someone else's actions can affect what happens to you, but they are usually single events, and most times, one can always decide one's reactions to such events. Would you rather wallow in depression because you are going through a life-changing mess or would you rather change the way you respond to that mess?
The Freedom Writers' Diary is the strongest proof I've seen about how you can make a difference to your life and to those around you. All the kids in Erin Gruwell's class have already been written off as failures, by other teachers, other students, and even their own parents. Worse, none of the kids could identify with Erin -- a white woman staying in a safe suburban residence, with no teaching experience and who had no idea of life in the violent gang-controlled streets of LA. Since even their previous teachers had given up on them, they gave Erin just a month before they believed she would move on.
The following 300-odd pages of this book shows so well how every single student has been transformed by Erin's teaching methods, the students' life experiences, their choices and willingness to perhaps hope that maybe they'll come through it all fine. So many stories in the book are moving. There's the student who's the sole caretaker of the family and is on the verge of eviction because he/she has to pay 800 bucks in rent and the car payment is also due. Then the girl who had a really wonderful family life at one point and within a few years, the mother left, the father remarried to a woman she and her siblings couldn't adjust to; soon they moved to an aunt's place who loved her a lot until her lover returned from the jail and the kids were back to square one -- homeless and family-less. There's the boy whose family doesn't have a home to stay in because they are so poor. There's the girl whose parents stole her stuff so that they can fund their drug addiction. There's also the girl who had to bring herself up because her mother was tired of being a mother. There's the boy whose father doesn't think his son will succeed and offers no hope or encouragement.
So many of the diary entries make you really sad, but by the end of each entry, I still smiled because the kids weren't writing with despair, they were writing with hope. They made promises to themselves and expressed their gratitude that they at least still had the Freedom Writers. Erin Gruwell and her class were a symbol of hope for all these kids. It's beautiful reading about how these kids change and how they do and wish good for others too. Their hostility is very evident in the initial diary entries, but as I read, I could vividly see the changes happening. It's also a reminder that just because a kid walks around with a gun or a knife, it doesn't mean that they are bad. It means they need help and there are no adults offering them that.
I've never had a teacher like Erin Gruwell, but then I've never been in a challenged class like Erin's. Still, every school needs someone like her -- if not to help those 'written-off' kids, then to at least empathize with the kids in their class. All kids have problems -- maybe not as tragic as the circumstances of the kids in this book, but certainly important problems that can have far-reaching consequences later on in life.
If four years ago someone would have told me that Ms. G was going to last more than a month, I would have laughed straight in their face. She wasn't supposed to make it, we weren't supposed to make it. But look at us now, the sure-to-drop-out kids are sure to reach higher education. No one would have thought of the "bad-asses" as high school graduates -- as any kind of graduates. Yet, in four years we will be college graduates. Our names will be on the alumni lists of Columbia, Princeton, Stanford, and even Harvard.
I loved both the movie and the book -- both are remarkably similar in plotline, but the book is just a bunch of numbered diary entries (you never know the identity of most kids and that lends a poignant innocent feel to the book). In the movie, there are some characters that are more central to the storyline. I loved all the actors who portrayed the students. They really got well into the skin of their characters. The movie also gives a personal look into Erin's life, which is not present in the book. As I understand it, the movie also used Erin's memoir to put together the various threads. I will recommend both the movie and the book to you -- they are both well-done. If like me, you aren't feeling motivated to read the book, you should certainly watch the movie then. I promise that you'll be checking out the book the very next day.(less)
When I was first offered to review this book, I spent a while thinking about Bhutan, the country which is the focus of this travelogue memoir. The fir...moreWhen I was first offered to review this book, I spent a while thinking about Bhutan, the country which is the focus of this travelogue memoir. The first sad thing I realized was that even in spite of having stayed for eight years in India, and having grown up on a steady diet of news regarding the southern Asian peninsula, Bhutan very rarely featured in any flash news from that region. Although I knew plenty about Bhutan, there was still a lot I didn't. That, as well as the real reason why news about Bhutan rarely invaded my living room couch, was revealed to me in this book.
Radio Shangri-La is about Lisa Napoli's rediscovery of self through this remotely tucked away country in Asia. The book started out typically - a mid-life crisis bringing about a yearning for travel - especially to a little known country shrouded in mysticism and full of a promise of spiritual awakening. Warning flags immediately started popping up in my antenna - I haven't still forgotten the debacle that was Eat, Pray, Love. Luckily though, Lisa Napoli is very practical, and doesn't start off with dumping all her issues on us. In fact, it is many pages later that we really know what her troubles are. If not for the candid admission in the Preface that this is a story of her midlife crisis, I might have taken her for any one of us.
By the end of the book, I've learned enough about Bhutan to wonder which planet this country was in. Bhutan's monarchy made a conscious decision not to be "corrupted" by outside influences. It's unbelievably hard to get into this country - $200 per head per day! (Even if that hefty pay serves to keep most potential tourists out of the country, and thus not turn Bhutan into yet another country that serves as the world's spiritual ground, it's not a policy I approve of.) Lisa vividly describes the many customs of the country and its geographic characteristics that I could picture the place so well in my mind's eye. Too often, I find travelogues focus on only some particular aspect of a country. Not Lisa's, though. She doesn't stick to exploring only one facet of her favorite place in the world - instead she easily delves into other political and commercial news, and shares them with us.
I liked the second half of the book better than the first. The first half was way too descriptive for me, while the pacing of the second half a lot faster. The first half is really the exploration / rediscovery / change part of the author's life, and consistent with that, she shares a lot of what she learns during that phase with us. It has whole chapters that show what makes Bhutan the way it is -- resilient, incorruptible, paradisaical. I appreciated how well she made a case for it. But the second half, which is the acceptance / moving on part shows the reverse culture clash -- of her returning back to the states, completely transformed; and of one of her favorite people from Bhutan, who comes to visit her in LA.
Moreover, the first half of the book focuses on the "good" side of Bhutan. I may not have visited Bhutan, but there's a lot (esp the customs) that sounds similar to me because of the way of life in India. The author's initial perspective about the good virtues of Bhutan left me asking - where's all the bad stuff and the bad people? Even in a country so isolated, where radio broadcasting is received with the same gusto as Apple's iPads are in the tech world, and where everyone absolutely loves the king, there should still be the odd person indulging in bad politics or something about this mystic place that feels too ancient. I was rewarded in the second half with all those answers. The author presents a well-written case of why some things had better not be done in Bhutan, and what some changes can mean to the country and the rest of the world.
While I didn't agree with the author on everything, I loved that this was a very honestly written account of what she benefited from Bhutan. She didn't believe in superstitions or prayer rituals to make her life better but if that option was provided to her, she didn't denounce it or jump into it outright - instead she had a very practical response. That practical approach, her candidness and matter-of-fact tone in making any decisions are what make this memoir work very well.(less)
The author, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, was an MBA student at Harvard Business School, when she yearned to do some research in a subject that mattered but w...moreThe author, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, was an MBA student at Harvard Business School, when she yearned to do some research in a subject that mattered but which no one cared for much. That brought her to the topic of women entrepreneurship in war-torn Rwanda, and then to Afghanistan. Her initial search efforts in Kabul raised no potential candidates. It was after a long hunt that she found the protagonist of this biography and this book, The Dressmaker of Khair Khana is her attempt to tell the story of that woman entrepreneur.
Kamila Sadiqi was just returning home after receiving her diploma when she overheard many rumors about the Taliban's arrival at the outskirts of the city, fully intending to take control. The past four years wasn't the safest period for Kamila and her sisters, but their father was every bit insistent that the girls be educated. "The pen is stronger than the sword" - he loved to say. He had grown up watching European women work side-by-side with men, and he wanted his girls (and two boys) to be educated and capable of looking after themselves and their family in any dire situation.
But with the Taliban's arrival, a lot of avenues close up. Girls and women were forced to wear the chadri (the full-length burkha with just a tiny latticed slit for them to see through); they couldn't step out of their homes without a mahram, a male familial companion, and they weren't allowed to converse with any man who is not family. That figuratively shut them in their own homes. Those who didn't follow the rules were beaten ruthlessly. Kamila's parents were originally from the north and her father had worked for the previous government. This made their lives even less safe, prompting her father, her mother, and finally one of her brothers to leave to the north. Only Kamila, her youngest brother and her sisters were left behind.
Perhaps the only aspect that I didn't understand was how these girls - of whom only one was married and living separately with her husband and children, and also happened to be pregnant with twins, and Kamila, the elder of the rest was herself just seventeen - were left behind by their family. It was not safe outside, the author has reiterated time and again. Kamila's father has also explained that the girls were safer at home, but the menfolk weren't, because they were either put in prisoner camps (esp if they were found to have had worked for the previous government), or sent to the front lines to battle. And it was dangerous to move the whole family together. But I felt it was even riskier to leave the girls home alone, since they could barely get out of the home at risk of being beaten or taken to jail, and their only mahram was a thirteen-year old boy, too young to take responsibility (though Rahim proves to be so much more dependable, to be honest).
Since their funds are running real low now, Kamila comes up with a really risky idea to start a tailoring business. If she is caught, it can mean a lot of danger for herself, her mahram (Rahim), the shopkeepers who place orders, and her sisters. But Kamila being as stubborn as she is, she goes ahead with her plan. After a few initial misgivings, her sisters, who have been feeling lacklustre from nothing to do, jump into the opportunity. But everyone was having the same thought - how long will this continue?
Kamila is clearly a really strong woman, endowed with not just determination, but also a strong set of business skills that come in real handy and are even necessary. Gayle writes a really inspiring account of this young woman's life and those of her hard-working sisters, especially her older sister - Malika. I spent page after page rooting for the girls, hoping that none of the terrible danger befalls them. I'm not going to spoil it for you by saying what happens - you should find it out.
While not one of the best biographies I've lately read on this topic, the story is no less inspirational. This is a fast and short read - only occasionally the writing disappointed me. One really sad consequence of the war in Afghanistan is the warped perspective that we have all developed as outsiders. Most of our opinions have been shaped by the statements of the warring governments, the media, the Taliban, the soldiers/fighters. Amidst all this din, the voices of the civilians actually stuck in the war have been very subdued. I've always wondered - how did the women feel about wearing the burkha? How did they accept the no-education-only-housework role? Didn't they yearn for freedom, to be heard, accepted for who they were, loved? How did they settle into this kind of life? Probably the most revealing fact was that these women had never seen or even owned a burkha until the Taliban came by. Until then, they were quite adventurous women - who partied in stylish western wear, educated themselves to be doctors, teachers, etc, and were very very respected by men.(less)
Stitches is a graphical memoir by David Small, spanning mainly his childhood and teen years. Rather than a full-blown memoir, this book especially foc...moreStitches is a graphical memoir by David Small, spanning mainly his childhood and teen years. Rather than a full-blown memoir, this book especially focuses on his relationship with his parents and the consequences of many of their actions. David's mother was extremely moody. Her moods could last days or weeks and no one really knew what was bothering her and she never bothered to talk about it either. David's father was a doctor. When David was born with sinus and digestive problems, his father himself prescribed medicines, gave him shots, cranked his neck and took tons of X-rays. This was a very dysfunctional family.
Being a huge book in size, I assumed it would take me a while to get through it. On the contrary, it was a breezy read, but no less intense for that. I love it that this is a book of little words and more pictures. There are dialogues but they are used only where necessary. David Small lets his pictures do the talking and they certainly do it well!
David's mom was obsessed with saving money, so much so that when there are the beginnings of a lump on David's neck, she doesn't rush to get him treatment. Instead she chides him about it insisting that they don't have the money for it. She gets him a preliminary diagnosis, and even when his dad is suddenly the recepient of a huge amount of money, both his parents hurry off to do some shopping. There's no way I can explain that sudden feeling of sadness I got when I saw that even when they do have the means, it is spent on trivial pursuits and not on the health of their son.
David's anger at his parents is well-justified. But in the afterword, he mentions that there's a lot more he learned about his mother since her death. I still wouldn't get her off the hook, but I'm sure many of her actions could be understood better for reasons David does not reveal. As for his father, you get the feeling that he is just a presence in David's life. He doesn't know much about what's happening with him, most of what he knows are through his mother.
There are patches in this book when I didn't get quite as invested in David's story. Sometimes, I wasn't sure where the story was heading, since the cliffhanger comes well after two-thirds of the book. However, I'm sure my opinion will change after I reread this book, which I hope to do soon. There are many dimensions to this book, and to fully appreciate it, a reread is certainly in order. I would however be lying if I said that I wasn't moved. It was a very poignant read and bristling with righteous anger. For a long time, David kept quiet. He didn't fight or argue with his parents, but you could always sense the inevitable boiling point. But what brings about that eventuality is something very shocking - something David had to find out the really hard way.(less)
Fist Stick Knife Gun is yet another book on gang violence. I've been lately reading/watching stuff on this topic. It is totally unplanned, mostly coin...moreFist Stick Knife Gun is yet another book on gang violence. I've been lately reading/watching stuff on this topic. It is totally unplanned, mostly coincidental, but I can't help but notice its recurrence. First it was Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty by G. Neri and then this book. Now, just last night, I watched the movie - Freedom Writers (which by the way is awesome).
Fist Stick Knife Gun was illustrated by Jamar Nicholas, based on Geoffrey Canada's memoir by the same title. This is the first time I'm reading a graphic version of a book and I'm kind of mixed about how I feel. Since this is the only so-so aspect I have to say, I want to get that out of the way. I haven't read the original book so I don't have a reference, but I felt the graphic book was too verbose, almost like any regular book. It had the total feel of a graphic novel, but there was a lot of background narration, so it felt wordy to me.
This memoir follows Geoffrey Canada's life in one of the many gang-operated New York streets, and the lifestyle he led in such a climate. It takes a look at the kids who grow up in lawless streets and are forever defined by the crimes that happen around them and the survival tactics they learn there. While reading this book, many times I wondered why the color of the skin is usually enough for many as evidence of crime. And why when such people of color ask for police help, their complaints are treated as trivial.
When the book begins, Geoffrey is a four-year old staying with three other brothers and their mother. Their father wasn't much of a father and walked out of their lives early on. Geoffrey's mother is a strong woman. She never let her kids take any kind of crap from others. Once when someone stole a jacket belonging to one of Geoffrey's brothers, she threatened that he go back and get it. (I did think that was too intimidating and almost like sending a kid to slaughter, but to survive the kind of life the kids were inevitably going to lead, they needed to learn to stand up for themselves.) This ultimatum absolutely terrified the boys but they managed to get the jacket back somehow.
The real test for the kids begins when they all move to a different street. This street has a total different gameplay and power structure. Before anyone is considered a part of the street, he has to fight someone else so that they know their place in the street hierarchy. If they don't fight or do not show any kind of "stand up for themselves" characteristic, they get beaten up. As Geoffrey explains, the town's kids are actually being prepared for the crueler and harsher environments they will face in school and later on, in other streets.
I liked this book better than I expected to. The artwork shows the whole dynamics of street life better than what I gleaned off from any other book. The boys may be tough, violent and unreasonable sometimes, but I didn't, couldn't, look at them as just plain gangs. In fact, although this book provides a really good look at gang life, that phrase never really crossed my mind as I was reading it.
It really is amazing how much such a kid has to go through to survive. Darwin's Survival of the Fittest springs to mind immediately. There's no money in many of the homes there. No police protection, no education or welfare programs - in fact, no one cares about the people there. This could have been some isolated part of the world for all you know. And yet these kids devise their own mechanisms to survive - their own power structure and leaders, their own rules and punishments - in fact, each street is like its own separate country governed primarily by fist-fights, sticks, knives and guns, in that order. (less)
I first came across this title at Helen's blog. I had never heard of this book before, nor the incident narrated in it. Moreover, the title of the boo...moreI first came across this title at Helen's blog. I had never heard of this book before, nor the incident narrated in it. Moreover, the title of the book - Yummy - sounded too weird, too out-of-place to me. I could tell from the cover that this book had no relation to food, whatever the title. Yummy is the nickname of the protagonist of this book, Robert Sandifer, because he loved sweets.
This graphic novel was written by G. Neri and illustrated by Randy DuBurke. I thought the narration and the illustration effectively communicated the guns and gangs problem in the shady law-crippled areas. The setting is in Chicago actually, but it could have been any other place - don't we regularly hear about gang crimes in LA, NY, and many countries around the world?
Yummy is just 11. He has already been recruited into a gang. He wants to impress the older members of his gang by displaying toughness and proving that he can do any kind of work. The US law couldn't convict kids - they could go to juvenile prison and walk out free once they turned 21. (I don't know what the law is now, but that's what it was during Yummy's days). I still think wasting your youth in jail is a far more tragic punishment than being in jail forever, but the gang members used that law to their advantage by recruiting younger kids to do their dirty work, knowing that they wouldn't be arrested forever.
Yummy is really short, hence called a shortie by many of his "friends" and gang members. A tough shortie, because he could get really nasty and tough if he wanted to. He didn't like being taken advantage of, and if possible, he would get his revenge too. Being obsessed about getting higher up in the gang hierarchy (as he was promised as bait to commit crimes), Yummy was out on a mission, when he aims wrong and shoots the wrong person - a girl named Shavon Dean, who just happened to be in the wrong place at that time. When you stop to think about it, it's really tragic, not even filmy-tragic. A girl who has no connection to gangs, who just wants to work in a beauty parlor someday because she could style hair really well, is killed. A boy, whose voice has probably not even broken yet, and didn't even train to aim properly is a murderer. He comes from a fractured family, so there's no one really to help him. And now the gang members would be mad because of the law officials who'll be coming to investigate.
What I loved about this book is how Yummy is portrayed. Coming from a troubled home, his confusion is very obvious. His parents are in prison, and he was left in the care of his granny, who was also looking after (if that could be said) a whole other bunch of grandkids, sometimes up to 20. Yummy could disappear for days from her house, and she wouldn't notice. When he wants to appear tough, you could see it clearly in the drawings. In fact, his expressions could even scare you if you were looking at him closely. And at other times, he would be the 11-year old kid that he actually is, who loves the usual boy stuff and yearns to be loved and accepted.
This book was a really fast read, but it left me thinking for a long time. This is one of those cases where you never know who is to blame. Far from being dangerous, the fact that a kid can easily walk around with a gun is simply tragic, mindblowing and unbelievable. I've always been against liberal gun laws, and I can't imagine changing my viewpoint, whatever anyone tells me about most buyers being responsible, and just intending to use it for hunting or for safety. But of course, if someone wants a gun, they will get it, however tight the laws are.(less)
Anne Frank is no stranger to us. We all know about how she hid with her family and four others in a secret annex in Netherlands during the infamous Ho...moreAnne Frank is no stranger to us. We all know about how she hid with her family and four others in a secret annex in Netherlands during the infamous Holocaust, for two years. Whether or not we have actually read or loved her diary, none of us would deny that she went through a harrowing experience - just as million other Jews, victimized simply because of their faith. But in so many ways, Anne has become a symbol of that period chiefly because she was just fifteen when she died (murdered is what I like to say, even if it was disease that eventually claimed her), and also because she recorded her stay in the annex in her diary, which has already been read by millions.
That said, when I first read and loved Anne Frank's Diary two years back, the most common sentiment I heard expressed among those who didn't rate it highly was that the book felt too "immature". In other words, it read like any fifteen year old's diary - with all the typical squabbles, complaints, teenage infatuations/crushes/desires and worldly wisdoms. It seemed anticlimactic or too flat considering all the hype around it. I know many who tried to read it as any diary and eventually gave up. Most people loved it though, and what particularly struck me about the diary was that it was the manifestation of the dreams and desires of a girl (like any other girl), who never got to experience them, because of a man-made tragedy.
From that perspective, this graphic nonfiction is a really excellent accompaniment to the diary. Many have attested that when reading Anne's diary, it is really crucial to be in Anne's position - trapped for two years in an annex with just a single bathroom and not much privacy; a young girl at the cusp of those years when she is discovering herself, every single day - the age at which any girl or boy wants to experiment with a lot of things, including love and all the desires it invokes. Add another family to that annex, a family you now had to live with for two years, or rather for an unknown amount of time.
In Anne's diary, the events following their capture are chronicled in the Afterword section of the edition I read - who died and how, who survived. This book actually shows the events. Pictures can have a more powerful effect on the reader, and it did so in this case. Did you know that Anne and her sister died just weeks before rescue arrived at their camp? If she had been rescued, her diary might never have seen the light of day. But at least the world would not have missed having such a remarkable woman in its midst.
I felt that this book was really well-done. I read in an interview (whose link I can't find now) that the drawings of the characters, their attires and even the layouts of the annex strongly resemble the original characters and their hideout. Towards the end of the book when everyone is captured, they all look so different from their original selves - malnutrition, disease and fatigue eating out their muscle and body mass quickly. That's something I can never get used to - all those horrific images of the camps and their inmates. How could humans be so callous? I knew before I started, thanks to Ash, that this book is not a duplicate of Anne's diary. Instead, it covers a significant period before and after Anne starts writing her diary. That's really helpful because it puts Anne's diary in context much better than the diary itself does. Suddenly, the events seem much more harrowing, more scary, vivid and dangerous than how Anne says it. And after reading this graphic book, when I recollect some of the entries from Anne's diary, I see them in a much different light.(less)
Jasmin Darznik's The Good Daughter is a beautifully written compelling biography about her own mother, Lili, who was born in Iran -- almost doomed to...moreJasmin Darznik's The Good Daughter is a beautifully written compelling biography about her own mother, Lili, who was born in Iran -- almost doomed to a docile and probably condemned life but instead goes on to pursue her studies in Germany and eventually moves to the United States at the dawn of the revolution. The book is full of all things Iranian that I love. The revolution is a sour taste in the whole of Iran's history, but the people who came forward to say that story have been wonderful. Jasmin herself didn't know much about her mother until she accidentally comes across an old photo featuring her mother with her first husband, whom Jasmin does not know at all.
I just loved this book. This is one of those magnificent reads from which I found it so hard to look away. I finished it in just two weekdays though sadly my review is a couple of months late. Even after all these days, I still remember how awesome this book was. Lili is one of those amazing heroines, who don't let their fates decide the rest of their lives. She was sufficiently traditional that whenever Jasmin did something "un-Iranian", Lili would keep talking about the good daughter who did good things. But she was sufficiently modern that she didn't let anything come in her way once her education in Germany was approved, where she met her husband-to-be. I couldn't help but root for Lili. She had easily lived the life of any 30-year old woman by the time she was thirteen. She'd been dismissed from school, married, abused, lost her virginity, become pregnant to a girl she couldn't keep, and fallen victim to a drug overdose - all because of being swayed or influenced by a society that was intent on hiding its women, yet making sure they got roped in to wedlock as early as possible.
Lili's father, Sohrab, was not in love with his wife, Kobra. He abused her, kicked her out of his home many times, abandoned her while he went to live with his long-time lover, and yet Kobra never stopped looking out for him. She literally bore his abuses if they made him feel better. I wanted to whack her many times and persuade her to move on, but a collusion of circumstances - Iranian customs, the taboo that is divorce, and her own insecurities - made her a servant of his mood swings. While I hated Sohrab for how he treated Kobra, he was the perfect father for Lili. He was not supportive of her early marriage, and when Lili left her husband, destined to a horrible life, Sohrab insisted that she make something of it -- this is what provided her an opportunity to study in Germany.
Although divorce was frowned upon, and as in many Muslim communities, Iranian women didn't have the option of calling a divorce (the men could easily divorce their wives by word of mouth), I found it interesting that the Iranian society (at least in those days) accepted divorce with a lot more ease than what I'm used to hearing from news sources in the Middle East. There were a lot of wagging tongues and a considerable amount of scandalized gestures, but none of them were so significant as what I've heard the situation to be out there. Divorced Iranian women were ridiculed, but they could move on with their lives, and make something much more of it, with fathers like Sohrab. In Iran, education wasn't wasted on girls, as in so many countries. Their marriages were arranged as early as when they were 11 years of age, and the couple's first night (read sex) is a celebrated event, wherein the ladies of the house spend the night by the door, waiting for the bloodied handkerchief. (Ok, writing that grossed me out.)
The Good Daughter reads like a riveting fictional story. I had to remind myself many times that this was nonficion. After all, who said nonfiction cannot be suspenseful or intriguing? My review doesn't do justice to it, because it's only a tiny fraction of the awesomeness filled in this book. Really, you should just go pick the book and read it -- there's nothing more that I can say. Lili is a woman I would love to meet and know personally -- she is strong, ambitious, and even as a child, she had plenty of perseverance. Reading this book made me feel like I was lost in an incredible saga, and at all points, I wanted Lili to come out successful. (less)
The Depression is one of the periods of this century that I know very little about. Other than reading about it in passing in some books and coming ac...moreThe Depression is one of the periods of this century that I know very little about. Other than reading about it in passing in some books and coming across the tons of references and side-jokes when the current recession hit, I knew almost nothing about it. Sure it was a hard time, a lot of people lost their jobs, but that's probably the limit of my knowledge. Ted Gup's book, A Secret Gift, is a memorial to his grandfather, Sam Stone, whose simple act of reaching out monetarily to a few families during the Christmas of 1933, made Christmas so much more merry for most of them.
Ted Gup accidentally came across a briefcase of letters, when his mother was clearing out a cupboard. Inside it, he found letters upon letters, and 150 canceled checks, in addition to other memorabilia. Reading these letters took him back seventy-five years to an unsolved mystery when a certain B. Virdot promised to send money to 50-75 families. His only condition was that they write to him about their true circumstances. Neither their identities nor his own would ever be revealed. Which would have been honored, until, of course, this briefcase was found.
I began to read through them, beginning with those that looked most legible. They spoke of hunger and cold, of endless searches for work, of dead ends and growing doubts. I was startled by their candor and disturbed by the grim terrain they described.
Ted Gup starts writing in this amazingly captivating manner, that I found hard to put down, even if at 3 in the morning. I hold him responsible for the two times I reported late at work, totally oversleeping on one occasion. Thank goodness it snowed that day. Partly my immersion was also due to my avid fascination with family history. It's immensely satisfying to know more about the people in your family, especially in roles you've never seen them in. Of course, you never want that knowledge to taint their reputation. Ted Gup's discovery only elevates his respect for his grandfather.
Here's another thing I probably assumed wrong about the Depression. My understanding was that most people probably recovered from the slump. Maybe it has to do with me being optimistic during the recession and trying to believe that everyone will come through and that there will be more jobs. Instead, what I learned was that there were many success stories, but there were plenty of not-so-bright futures too. Worse, the effects of the Depression even cascaded a few generations down. Ted Gup not only shared the letters with us, he also tracked down as many of the descendants of the original writers of the letters and gave us some of the what-happened-next as well. I was hooked!
To say that the stories were interesting to read about would be to pass a mistaken impression that they all had happy endings. Because many didn't . They could be plain depressing reading about on their own. Most take on bleak tones. The writers are too proud to publicly ask for help or charity. No one really wanted handouts. They all wanted a job. They might all have slammed doors in B. Virdot's face had he walked up to them and offered a five-dollar bill. But the anonymity of the offer gave them a chance to let out their troubles. What saved the letters from being dreary was they all showed triumph of the human spirit in them. What mostly won my respect was that every letter (at least every one that I remember) mentioned that if they were considered worthy of B. Virdot's check, then they would like to spend it on their family - usually the little children who would otherwise have a very gloomy Christmas.
The timeliness of this novel cannot be better appreciated. While not a Christmas novel at all, it evoked in me all the sentiments that Christmas stands for. The sacrifices, the love, the yearning to give kids a wonderful day even though there is no money for the same. What also surprised me was that most people down on their luck would usually think of saving any extra money they get or using them for emergency expenses such as rent or food. And yet, it warmed me that some just wanted to put a smile on the faces of their kids, make them feel great even if for just one day, by giving them gifts within their means. I can hardly fathom how they must have tried to decide what to do with that five dollar check. We can only guess and assume. As Ted Gup says,
Only in hindsight could one be tempted to romaticize the Depression, to imagine it as a kind of ritualistic purification of the American soul.
Some of those who wrote to B. Virdot were very successful before "The Crash". Overnight, they became paupers. Others were always struggling. The Depression reduced them further. The first to suffer were usually the women. Almost automatically, women were laid off from work. This was an especially hard pill to swallow for those women who were the sole breadwinners of their family - the widowed or the divorced. It was interesting reading how every one of those situations share some form of common ground with Ted's grandfather, the benefactor. But at some point, the repetitive narration got a bit tiresome because of the frequent comparisons, especially since the reader had by then come to look for the similarities him/herself. It didn't help that there were quite a few typos that nagged at me. Ted Gup's book could have done with a better editing.
The second half of A Secret Gift slackens off slightly after the very promising start. Somehow that disappointed me, because once I figured out the whole mystery of why Ted's grandfather did what he did, everything became predictable. Don't mistake me - the stories were very powerful and engrossing, but the direction of the writing didn't hold as much captivation as it did in the initial half. Despite this, the book is very rich in history, with the town of Canton, Ohio, being a major character in itself. To someone like me, who is not very well-verse with the period around the Depression, it also served as a treasure trove of knowledge. In the end, what made this book click was reading about one man who sought to make a difference, however transient, and about the families who yearned to be part of that financial help, though most (probably all) would never have publicly asked for aid.(less)
How often do you complain that you wish life was better? I've thought it every time I get stuck in the doldrums, but I know that it's just a minor bli...moreHow often do you complain that you wish life was better? I've thought it every time I get stuck in the doldrums, but I know that it's just a minor blip. What if your whole life is one big never-ending blip? What if you wake up every day only to find that the nightmare of last night is not really over? That pretty much sums up the sentiment expressed in Dina Kucera's memoir, Everything I Never Wanted to be. When I first received this title, I was expecting a depressing read about a family's battle with alcoholism and drug addiction. It doesn't help that the cover conveyed the same impression.
I couldn't have been more wrong.
Dina Kucera's life is a mess. I don't think she will mind that I wrote that, because she uses more intense words in the 204 page memoir. When I say mess, I mean, she was an alcoholic, though sober for a few years now. Her husband was a pot-addict, also sober for a few years now. Her mother has Parkinson's, her grandmother was addicted to Xanax. Her three daughters are fighting off various additions - the eldest, Jennifer is both an alcoholic and a drug-addict; her second, April entertained neither until a life trauma sent her to alcohol for relief; the third, Carly, was a heroin addict at age 13. In addition, Dina's grandson, Moses, has cerebral palsy.
Does that sound like a family you would see on greeting card websites or as a success story poster for any kind of organization? I was shocked to read the vices that plagued this family. Carly's drug addiction tore me the most. She used meth to get off heroin and heroin to get off meth. No matter how many rehabs she went to, she kept returning to the drugs. Being a very anti-drug person, it took me some time to understand Carly's obsession. Dina shares with us four letters that Carly wrote. She starts with a letter in which sixteen-year old Carly expresses her desire to die. By the time, we read Carly's third letter, which she wrote at the age of six, the reader is well-versed in Carly's addiction. The innocence of the third letter made me very sad. How did such a girl go to full-blown addiction by the time she was thirteen?
Dina writes her memoir in a tone typical of stand-up comedians. I don't watch many stand-up comedies, I find my grey cells process jokes too slow. As a result, it took me about 50 pages to "accept" Dina's style of writing. It was definitely easy prose, in fact, a very engaging one. After page 50, I found that I didn't want to put the book down at all. But until then, I found her sarcasm too cruel, whether it was directed at herself or her extended family, or her own mom or her husband's twin. It was just her way of narrating the darkness in her life. It was her therapy. Towards the end, she explains that in a life as messed up as her own, humor's the only way she can get through her day. And when you turn page after page and get a feel that her nightmare doesn't seem to near a possible end at all, you understand. Humor becomes your means to navigate through pile after pile of horrors.
That doesn't mean I agreed with her at all times. The author frequently says that no one "gets" it, that only someone who has been through what she has will actually understand her hardships. She rants against the rich people, the other parents (whose children don't do drugs), and anyone who's not a parent. All such people in Dina's life have either offered her unhelpful advice or turned their noses up at her. Hard and traumatic as those experiences have been to her, I feel that generalization is a very dangerous tool. It's the one thing that creates so much bias in the world today. And since I am not a parent myself, I felt offended many times, reading those passages. I'm not even going to begin narrating the what-would-I-do's, I know fully well that many times I've done the opposite of what I've proclaimed. But I don't believe that not being in a situation makes you any less empathetic than you are.
Dina Kucera clearly has a lot of regrets. She has even listed out the terrible mistakes she made as a parent - the kind of mistakes that anyone would go aghast at. But her boldness in admitting them and her intense wish that she could go back and change them feel very honest. Despite my disagreements with her, towards the end, I was rooting so much for her and wishing that the nastier aspects at least mellowed down. For all her mistakes, I think she is one incredible woman for trying to do all she can for her family - even iron out their problems. And did I mention her husband? Although he isn't mentioned too much in this book, I have to say I loved this guy for all he did for his family too. In the end, although the elements explored in this book are tragic, this book is definitely not a depressing read. Instead, what you get is a tremendous amount of hope. Dina writes a very uplifting story amidst and about all the ruins around her. I could take a writing class from her. In addition, it is also a powerful call for help of the drug-addicted teens, who need help not prison to help knock off their habits.(less)