Archive for 2014

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

December 25th, 2014 — 5:52pm

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand– I read this book and wrote this review prior to seeing the movie by the same name. I do plan to see it and will review it in Shot 2014-12-25 at 1.30.47 PM (click here to see review)

Louie Zampereini was an Italian-American boy from a poor family who was raised in Torrance, California. He was a rough and tumble kid who had a propensity for stealing things and getting into trouble. He was fast on his feet and ultimately developed into a record breaking track star who participated in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany. When World War II came about he signed up for the Army Air Force and became a bombardier. Early in the war his plane on a mission crash-landed in the Pacific Ocean where he and two other airman survived in rafts for 47 days as they drifted 2000 miles. During this time they battled starvation, dehydration, hungry sharks and storms as well as Japanese planes that strafed them with machinegun fire. If you think this was bad you should see what happened after they were rescued at sea…by the Japanese and made prisoners of war (although they were never treated according to the Geneva Convention rules for POWs). We see how things were absolutely terrible and how demeaning the treatment of American Prisoners was, ironically clearly much worse than the German Nazis reportedly dealt with their American captives. Louis was apparently treated much more savagely once he was recognized as an Olympic track star.

Being a member of the Silent Generation and having come of age in the decade following WWII, I grew up as a kid reading all sorts of stories and seeing all the movies about this war. Even now as an older guy I am still drawn to a book such as this one. I am sorry to say that reading about the awful treatment by the Japanese of the helpless American prisoners, my old negative prejudiced feelings about the Japanese people were awakened. I know these are irrational and are related to issues from a previous generation. Although a few kind guards were mentioned, there clearly was, at that time, an institutionalized culture of cruel, vicious treatment of the Americans who were starved, tortured and made to do slave labor. We see these atrocities through the eyes of Zamperini who was officially considered dead by his government although his family seemed to have never given up hope for him. We trace his ordeal as he is moved to various prison camps and was never registered with the Red Cross as a POW although that was the usual procedure mostly followed by the Japanese who nevertheless hid their maltreatment of their captives.

The book does not end with his liberation at the end of the war. It follows Zamperini’s reintegration into civilization and his seeming resilience but also his very dark and destructive periods, which were almost as bad as you can imagine. The author Laura Hillenbrand, who previously wrote the best seller Seabiscuit had access to diaries, newspaper articles, radio and television interviews and a gigantic trove of people to interview who knew Zamperini in the various phases of his life including those who were imprisoned with him and close family members. She also had the opportunity to interview Zamperini himself more than 75 times and became quite close to him before he died in July of 2014 at the age of 97.

At times the book seems overly repetitious. Perhaps it felt that way because it was so painful. I am not giving away the ending because the title clearly does that but this book is also about the human spirit. As an outsider who didn’t live through his ordeal and didn’t live through this time as an adult, I can only try to get into Louis’ head through this book. When we try to do this, there is a tendency for us to be traumatized. At one point in the book we learn that recently there was a commemorative memorial made by the local Japanese people at the site of one of the camps at which Zamperini spent much of his time. It honored and remembered the prisoners who were there, many of them who had died there. We are also told that there are pictures of six birds flying in the sky as symbols of the memory for 6 of the prison guards who were tried as war criminals and executed! On the day that I am writing this review there is a front page article in the New York Times that discusses the current Japanese Prime Minister Abe and his hope to bring about a change in the Japanese constitution which was written post war by the Americans and forbids Japan from ever going to war again. Time marches on.


1 comment » | B - Biography, HI - History

My Promised Land by Ari Shavit

December 22nd, 2014 — 4:50pm

My Promised Land by Ari ShavitScreen Shot 2014-12-21 at 1.34.42 PM

If you have any familiarity with the politics of the Middle East and the establishment of the state of Israel you know it is a very complicated story. Ari Shavit is an Israeli who cares deeply about the future of his beloved homeland. He has written what appears to me to be a definitive comprehensive book about the history of modern Israel. In the course of writing this book, he has done extensive research and has interviewed hundreds of people, many who have been key players in the amazing story of Israel. Shavit is a well-established journalist who personally knows many of these people. Others agreed to meet with him apparently because of his good reputation. I am not in a position to judge if he has all his facts straight and if he has given a balanced view. I can only say that it appears that he has tried to understand and present numerous points of view, This has to be a painful book to anyone who has an affinity for Israel and what this country has meant to so many people.

Naturally, Shavit covers the story of the European Jews who escaped annihilation from the Holocaust and how many of them with literally the shirts on their back built kibbutzim, moshavim, new cities, orange groves and so much more. The transformation from scorched dessert into fertile farms while on the surface is a magical story but is one of tremendous work and dedication. Similarly the development of Tel Aviv into one of the great cities of the world seems like a fairy tale but in reality reflects the courage and the personality of the people who came to Israel.

The spirit and the work ethic of the people who made up the Zionist movement is not the only story of Israel. There is also a narrative of continued bloodshed, conflicts, ethical dilemmas and an uncertainty about the future. The 1948 declaration of a State of Israel by the United Nations was followed by an attack by the surrounding Arab countries, which is a well known important piece of history. As are the 1967 War and the 1973 Yom Kipper War. The details and the meanings behind these wars are discussed in great detail in this book. Shavit doesn’t stop there; he examines and discusses the displaced natives of Palestine and other parts of Israel where many Arabs have lost their homes. While many Arabs do live in harmony in what is now Israel, it clear that many live for the day that they can regain what they feel is rightfully their land. Then there is the situation of the Jewish settlements on the Palestine west bank. On one hand, this is viewed as undermining the one just possibility for a two state solution that might lead to long lasting peace. On the other hand, there is also the point of view of the settlers which they present as a moral and deep seated justification for what they are doing.

There is the story of the Sephardic Jews in Israel, many of whom have felt greatly discriminated against. As with each issue the author brings to life the point of view of the protagonists by not only reviewing factual historical events but also by telling compelling personal stories of the people involved.

Perhaps one of the most important subplots of the story of Israel is a secret chapter that cannot be officially told. On the other hand it is well known and documented by Shavit. In this case he does this by using mostly non-Israeli and certainly non-official sources. This is the fascinating tale but certainly true story of the development of the city of Dimona, which is where Israel mobilized it’s human resources, with some help from France, to develop nuclear weapons. While this unacknowledged fact is stated with great certainty, Israel has never overtly used this as a threat but it nevertheless has been essential for the survival of Israel.

If Dimona were the big secret that I heard about before reading this book, the discussion of the magnitude of threat to Israel from Iran was something that I never fully appreciated. The author in his meticulous style reviews the response of Israel to each step that Iran has made to develop their own nuclear weapon capacity. This includes a daring secret air attack by Israel in 1981 which demolished Iran’s nuclear plants, which were on the verge of producing weapon grade nuclear material. This leads us to the present and one of the major dilemmas that Israel faces today. Once again Iran, a country that has sworn to destroy Israel, is approaching the ability of developing nuclear weapons.

I hope I have made the point that Ari Shavit has written an amazing book that has vividly described in depth so many of the historical events that have allowed Israel to develop and flourish, as well as the issues that question Israel’s viability to survive in the future as it exists today.

Comment » | HI - History, P - Political

How About Never Is Never Good For You? by Bob Mankoff

November 10th, 2014 — 6:06pm

Screen Shot 2014-11-04 at 11.11.11 PMHow About Never Is Never Good For You: My Life in Cartoon by Bob Mankoff- I have always enjoyed cartoons, especially those in The New Yorker Magazine. Although I must admit that for some reason we haven’t subscribed to it for the past few years. However, I try to catch up in a visit to doctor or dentist’s office. When I learned about the weekly cartoon caption contest that the New Yorker magazine holds each week, I started entering it online most weeks. In fact I must have been very close to being a finalist a few times as my caption was almost the same as one of the top three, differing by just a word or two. This introduction leads up to why my wife bought me this book as a present.

Bob Mankoff is the current cartoon editor of the New Yorker Magazine and the guy in charge of the caption contest as well. In this book he traces his growing up up in New York and the development of his interest in humor and cartoons. As a psychiatrist I do appreciate his insight into himself as best summed up in this paragraph:

My mother wasn’t logical or knowledable. What she was, was intuitive. She wasn’t really an audience for my jokes, she was a target. And, as my therapist would tell you, still is. Yet I’ve gotten a lot from her, including a mother lode of material, some of which I’m unloading here. Although my relationshiship with my mother was less than ideal from a relationship standpoint, from a development of humor standpoint it worked very well. Humor thrives in conflict

Screen Shot 2014-11-10 at 4.09.59 PMHe attended high school in New York at “Music and Art’ which is known for attracting creative and talented students. He then went to Syracuse University, which in my day was very strong in journalism. He went on to a couple of graduate schools and came up just short of a PhD in psychology. Humor and cartooning was his clear goal. It appears that he put his sights on becoming a cartoonist for New Yorker Magazine.

This book is filled with his cartoons and  those of some of the great cartoonists whom he admired. We learn all about various styles of cartoons as Mankofff develops his own. Should it be dots, block style or whatever? Mankoff’s story is really a lesson in fortitude and persistence, You certainly have to be able to handle rejection if you want to be a cartoonist because it does seem that you would be able to paper your walls with rejection slips. Mankoff does succeed.  Not only does he get published in the New Yorker numerous times but he eventually becomes the prestigious cartoon editor of this magazine. Now he supervises the handing out of rejection slips and the process of choosing cartoons for publication. He is also in charge of the Cartoon Bank which offers cartoons for sale.

Screen Shot 2014-11-10 at 4.08.18 PMThen there was the book chapter that I was waiting for, Chapter 13, How to Win the New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest.  I learn that Mankoff’s trusted assistant does the first screening of all the entries. He looks at thousands of submissions and makes a short list of 50 of the best of them broken down into categories representing different comic themes. Now the New Yorker Cartoon Editor (currently Mr. Mankoff) chooses what he believes are the ten best. He then shows these to the various New Yorker editors and staff members asking them to rate each one as either, Unfunny, Somewhat Funny or Funny. Then the best three cartoons are chosen and the following week, the readership of the magazine will vote and chose the best one.

Mankoff gives suggestion how to approach the caption contest, advising the contestants to “free associate” and then “verbalize”, “conceptualize”, “topicalize” and finally “socialize”. Putting all these approaches together, he believes will help you come up with a caption for the cartoon that week. Still, I like just free-associating and trying to have an emotional reaction to the cartoon. Maybe his advice to be as brief as possible, novel and occasionally topical will help me. So while I didn’t learn too much about how to do well in the contest, I did enjoy seeing the different styles and appreciating the creativity of both the amateurs and the professionals in putting together the various cartoons that Mankoff showed in his book.

Screen Shot 2014-11-10 at 4.56.15 PMI thought that occasionally the cartoons and some of the print size of the illustrations was a little too small to comfortably read all the details (It may be my age but a younger reader did agree with me). The overall journey through this book was worth the ride. I always look forward to the cartoons that have been chosen to be shown in the magazine and I can’t wait to try my luck in the next cartoon caption contest.

Comment » | AM - Autobiography or Memoir, H - Humor

The Children Act by Ian McEwan

October 28th, 2014 — 3:28pm

Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 10.44.45 PMThe Children Act by Ian McEwan– Mr. McEwan is a prize winning best selling author of more than 15 books. For his latest novel, he has chosen to write about an established British woman judge who sits on Family Court cases. She deals with many types of heart wrenching situations of broken marriages, custody disputes and other issues which often lead to delicate ethical dilemmas, and which are really quite fascinating in and of themselves. However, in this novel the good judge, frequently called, “ My Lady” is faced with a personal dilemma herself as her husband threatens their marriage by telling her that he wants to have an affair with a particular younger woman. It should be noted that this domestic situation is not the same one, which she confronts in her courtroom; nevertheless it has an impact on her and begins to intrude in her thoughts. She usually is able to shake them off and when she does focus on her work we are made privy to fascinating human dilemmas. There are Siamese Twins who have to be split with one to be destroyed so the other can live. There is the classical case of a teenager a few months short of his 18th birthday that has leukemia and requires a blood transfusion to save his life and put his disease in remission. Alas, both he and his parents are devout Jehovah Witnesses who believe that it is God’s will that one should never have infusion of blood. They firmly believe this even if the failure to so will almost certainly lead to a painful horrible death. In this case, there are repercussions, which will advance the story.

I personally find that Mr. McEwan uses excessive dialogue to explain and illustrate the emotional situations, which he has already clearly described. This includes his description of dramatic interactions between people and even the powerful effect of music which he spends pages describing. It is not that this book is excessively long, as it clearly is not. Nor is the book lacking emotional impact. Perhaps because the author has the ability to come up with so many riveting themes, that I frequently felt he did not need to dwell on points he had already made. I found myself imagining this story being acted out on the Broadway stage with a handful of great actors, which I suppose is a backhanded compliment to this novel.



Comment » | FL - Fiction Legal

Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

October 28th, 2014 — 9:56am

Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 10.06.27 PMCaleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks – Caleb is one of two Israelites who left Egypt and survived to see the Promised Land. Geraldine Brooks has given this name to a Native American who in her novel is befriended by a young girl who is from one of the new settlements in the New World. Their friendship and subsequent lives are the story of this book. It is a fictional account, not only of their relationship, but also of what it was like growing up in this New World colony in the mid 17th century, which is now known as Martha’s Vineyard. It shows the interactions of these settlers with the natives of this land who lived nearby. There actually was a Native American by the name of Caleb who not only lived during this time period but who was educated by the settlers and ultimately went on to be part of one of Harvard’s earliest graduating classes This transformation of Caleb who had to crossover from his tribal beliefs and receive a Christian education which led to attending at Harvard was an exciting adventure and the main storyline of this book. The author Geraldine Brooks captured the atmosphere and life style of this period. She does this by a well-researched description of the living conditions and societal roles of her characters. She also uses the language and grammar of that time which while understandable to the modern reader still requires some retreat to the dictionary (electronic one in my case) For example;

When the light faded the cold seeped through my clogs and set my chilblains a-throbbing, I returned to the house and found Solace, who had wakened from nap, mewling softly…

A good historical novel (which this one certainly qualifies) not only provides feasible facts and actions of the characters but also should examine important social and political themes of the times. The author accomplishes this requirement quite well. We witness the good intentions of this group of early settlers not only to trade and negotiate with but also to teach the Native Americans about their deeply held religious beliefs. We see how many of the Native Americans are impressed with the apparent power of prayer to the Christian God as they see these white worshippers being able to survive disease, which the Native Americans despite the prayers to their gods were not successful in doing. (This was probably because the Europeans had come to the New World with antibodies to Small Pox and other diseases). Some native leaders foresaw the ultimate complete loss of their land and way of life, which would occur, and tried to resist. We also are reminded of the subsequent wars between these two groups and the later discrimination towards the Native Americans on the part of the settlers. For example, despite Caleb’s great accomplishments as well as those of a few other Native Americans at Harvard at this time in the 1650s, it took a great many years before another Native American would attend Harvard.

Through this engaging story the author also examined the role of women in the culture of the new world settlers. It was the job of girls and women to arise early, draw the water, prepare and cook the food, work the fields, clean the clothes etc. Even in the most educated families where there were scholars and ministers, young girls were lucky if they learned how to read, let alone study languages and classic history which was quite valued by these people.

This was a captivating novel, which provided enlightenment about what life was like at this time for the people depicted in the story. It also provided an emotional experience for the reader as we could identify with the characters and appreciate their struggles, hope, aspirations and disappointments.  


Comment » | FH - Fiction Historical

Mary Coin by Marisa Silver

October 10th, 2014 — 11:50am

Screen Shot 2014-10-09 at 9.33.15 PMMary Coin by Marisa Silver– It is a safe assumption, that just about everyone reading this review is familiar with the iconic photograph which is the book cover of the novel being reviewed. You probably know it was taken in California during the Great Depression, It has become known as the “The Migrant Mother.” But who are these people? Where did they come from, what was their life like and what was it like to live in those times? Marisa Silver the author of this novel was not content with just wondering about these things. She wanted to really understand what was going on. She obviously studied the history of this time and place, She created a story that goes beyond the picture but attempts to tell us about Florence Owens Thompson whom she names Mary Coin. She also tells us about the real photographer Dorothy Lange whom she gives the alias Vera Dare. With this latter character there actually have been a couple of biographies written over past 75 years, which could have, provided some important details to draw upon. There are no tell tale remnants of the main subject of the photo other than a letter that she wrote to a magazine complaining that she didn’t think it was right that the photographer should benefit from a personal image of her and her family. There is a third character created in this novel, which as far as I know is totally fiction. That is Walker Dodge, a college professor who studies cultural history by trying to find evidence of what people’s lives were really like in various time periods. Perhaps he is a stalking horse for the author. She does however take an imaginative poetic license in some of the plot that she develops about him.

By following the life of Mary Coin we see what is was like in the Great Depression, especially among poor people but it is still difficult to get an emotional understanding of these times. How can a modern day reader empathize with a single mother of 3 children who working all day doing hard labor in a farm field, picking crops which requires that she be bent over most of the time? What if the jobs are scarce and she doesn’t get work? What kind of medicine is available for her kids at that time period and in the midst of poverty? How do you deal with pregnancy, childbirth or abortion in the 1930s in this setting? What do sexual favors mean if they help you get food for your children? How do relationships develop in this context?

The story also follows the life of Vera Dare. We meet her family, come to appreciate her life and childhood as well as the people in her life as an adult. Through the recounting of a speech that she made, we come to understand the early life of the photographer. We follow her to where she gets a job taking pictures for the government that would capture the life and poverty of that time. This is where she meets Mary Coin.

This book also deals with the question of what is a photograph? What does it mean to be the subject of the picture and is there really consent in such a setting? The picture we realize is one moment in time but in this situation it really does tell a deep meaningful story with just one click.

There is the unanswered question raised by the Florence Owens Thompson  in the one letter that exists of her actual words as she challenges the idea that the photographer might have benefited from her plight. Ms. Lange the real photographer was working for the government and did not benefit directly from taking the picture. She obviously did so indirectly and this is part of her great legacy.

The iconic photograph has captured and preserved a moment in time as all pictures do. But because this one has reached and impacted millions of people, it takes on a special significance. It makes the numerous viewers want to understand what the people in it were experiencing at the time. Ms. Silver, the author extends the value of the picture by creating a story so we can know the lives of people of the time and place of the photograph. Like so many other historical novels, by reading it we have gained an insight and empathy about the subjects who are part of our humanity. Thus we are all richer for reading this book.

1 comment » | FH - Fiction Historical

How We Heal and Grow: The Power of Facing Your Feelings by Jeffery Smith, M.D.

October 7th, 2014 — 9:00am

Screen Shot 2014-09-30 at 5.38.33 PMHow We Heal and Grow: The Power of Facing Your Feelings by Jeffery Smith, M.D.

I was recently asked by my colleague and friend Dr. Jeffrey Smith, to write the Foreword for this new book that he has written. I was pleased to find it an excellent book. He offers a fresh and sensible way to look at how people develop dysfunctional patterns and facing feelings that have been avoided is the pathway to healing growth. He covers the full range of human problems from quirks to serous personality issues. He discussed the work of Freud, Mahler, Kernberg and many others including his own work. Interestingly the book is directed towards the lay public and I am sure will be received. However it really also belongs in the hands of therapists and any mental health professional who is involved with therapy. Dr. Smith has been teaching this subject to psychiatry residents and other psychotherapists for many years and is always very well received. He approaches the subject from a development al point of view. He points out how most of us have pockets of immaturity and how to outgrow them. Dr. Smith  discusses how and why the minds resist change. One of the central themes of Dr. Smith’s explanations is the phenomenon of catharsis where our underlying raw unprocessed feelings emerge and lose their power over us and are transformed when we share them with a therapist in the context of connection and safety. He describes this process and how it brings about an almost immediate change to the pathological emotions. I tend to look at the need for catharsis as something that has to occur over and over again which we often refer to as working through process. We do both agree that catharsis is an ongoing part of therapy. While this therapeutic work does require the empathic presence of the therapist. Dr. Smith also examines how some of this work may be able to done singularly when the person is trained in mindfulness in the Yoga and Buddhist tradition. The range and scope of the book is quite wide. He includes discussion of anxiety symptoms, trauma and depression although I felt he was little light on this latter subject particularly in regard to the role of loss. There is fascinating discussion on the dynamics of Multiple Personality Disorder in which he is a one of the few therapists with significant experience treating patients with this condition. Dr. Smith also brings his rich  experience in treating addiction into the book. He shares where dynamics and developmental experience is important and where the here and now social interaction is crucial. Included in the book is one of the best discussions of conscience and superego that I have ever come across. There is also and excellent section on the narcissistic personality and a description of how to understand a parent who had this condition and how to deal with important people in your life who have it. This is really a unique book that should have great appeal to therapists, students learning therapy and people interested in understanding their own emotional issues as well as those around them. I can also picture how this book may be very useful for people entering therapy, It will alert them to what to look for in themselves. It may very well facilitate the therapeutic process. In fact, I plan to give a copy of it to some patients who enter therapy with me. I am very pleased to conclude that Dr. Smith has made an outstanding contribution to our profession and to the education of the public.



Comment » | MHP - Mental Health/Psychiatry

Winter of the World by Ken Follett

September 27th, 2014 — 1:55pm

Screen Shot 2014-09-27 at 1.52.48 PMWinter of the World by Ken Follett– This #1 New York Times bestseller is book two of a trilogy by Ken Follett. It covers the time period 1933-1949. The book provides another opportunity for those of us who think we know this period of history as well newer generations of readers to experience the tumultuous times before, during and after World War II.Follett does this by following a wide variety of fictional individuals and families who are mainly German, British, Russian and American. The paths of these people frequently cross and interrelate. At the beginning of the book the author has a useful detailed listing of all these people, which could be very helpful in reminding you who they are as the reappear in various parts of the book. Unfortunately, I am an electronic reader and it was not convenient to jump back to that section. We meet most of these characters when they are teenagers. We follow a number of them through their groping first sexual experiences, which seems a little overdone. We do emerge with an inside view of rising fascism in Nazi Germany and the subsequent historical events. We are reminded that some people embraced Nazism and others clearly didn’t understand it until it was too late to object. One of the vignettes which stands out in my mind was the situation where two families in Germany were informed that their developmentally disabled children who were in a particular school were being transferred to a special hospital where “innovative research was being conducted which might help them.” One family member decided to personally investigate the situation with a clandestine visit to the hospital where she learned that their children as well as the old, infirmed, disabled, even babies were systematically being killed. This, of course, was only a small part of the Nazi extermination program. There were many vignettes depicting the horrors of the realities of combat on the various fronts of World War II. There also was some interesting and poignant insight into the plight of the idealistic men who volunteered to fight against Franco in Spain and were ruthlessly routed. There was an unforgettable scene in which a group of people who the readers had come to know, were visiting the brother of one of them who happened to be stationed in then peaceful Pearl Harbor on the day that the Japanese decided to attack. One of the most haunting scenes in the book was described in the chapter which dealt with the Russian soldiers who carried out wide spread rape of German women as they conquered their country in what they considered a payback for what the invading German armies had done to Russian civilians. There also were interesting insights presented into the politics of these times. Some of the people who we were following had personal or work relationships with Stalin, the British Prime Ministers as well as the American diplomats who formulated the post war policies including the Berlin Airlift and the Marshall Plan. All of these relationships and interactions became even more indelible because they were told through characters that the reader had come to know over 15- 20-year period, I certainly will look forward to catching up on Follett’s other two books of this trilogy as well as reading some of his other novels.

Comment » | FH - Fiction Historical

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

August 19th, 2014 — 11:52am

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk KiddScreen Shot 2014-08-19 at 12.20.01 AM

It is less than 200 years ago that slavery was a fixture in this country. As part of the curriculum in American schools we learn about this horrific treatment of human beings in the South and how the North tolerated this institution until the Emancipation Proclamation and ultimately the Civil War. However, I wonder if each succeeding generation of Americans really understands and appreciates what it was like to be enslaved in America and how this was accepted as part of everyday life by so many of the white people? When the award winning movie Twelve Years a Slave was released, there were some people who were disturbed by it because they felt it was too “painful to watch.” We are fortunate that there are filmmakers and in this case an author who can find a creative approach, to not only tell the story of slavery in the United States, but to do it a way that we not only understand what went on but that we can also have some idea of how the victims of slavery felt. I will say that this empathic experience for the most part extends to the oppressed rather than to understand the mindset of so many people who accepted this institution without question.

In this book we mostly follow two women for most of their lives. One is Sarah Grimke, born into a wealthy Charleston family at the beginning of the 19th century. Her father was a prominent judge, her mother was a socialite, her brothers were destined to be prominent lawyers and she and her sisters were expected to follow in her mother’s footsteps. Slavery was a way of life and there were 15- or so “Negroes” living in their house, each of whom had various duties. When there were children of the slaves, they would be brought up to follow in their parent’s footsteps. In fact, one such young girl was Hetty Handful who was presented to Sarah as a present for her 11th birthday to be her personal “slave.” Sarah rejects this plan, as much as a girl her age can reject the rules and the plan of the family. She secretly begins to teach Hetty to read which is forbidden. We meet Sarah’s father, the patriarch of the family and we see his acceptance of slavery with barely a reservation as well as his clear ideas about the limited role of women. We meet Charlotte, Hetty’s mom and a most skillful seamstress but a woman who knows where she came from and what she will never accept.

The reader becomes a fly on the wall in this household for the next several years as these girls grow up. We come to know the other members of this household, both slave and non-slave. We learn about the courting tradition, as Sarah and her sisters are formally allowed meet men at the proper time. The reader is introduced to how the slaves are punished when they make mistakes which can be a whipping or even worse (and the latter is described in vivid detail). Sarah develops a very close relationship with one of her younger sisters Nina, as at her own requests she is granted the role of godmother to her. Not surprising, their social values are quite similar and we are able to follow their fascinating paths, as both become prominent abolitionists. As in any good novel there are various sub stories. While the chapters alternate between “ Sarah “ and “ Hetty,” the fate of Charlotte, Hetty’s mother and Nina, Sarah’s special sister, inform the latter part of the book. As the story progresses, it also becomes clear that this not only a story about slavery in the United States but it is also about the beginning of the fight of woman to achieve equality in this country.

In fact, I don’t believe that it will spoil your enjoyment of this compelling novel, if I reveal what the author has put in a note at the conclusion of the book. That is that Sarah Grimke and her sister Nina Grimke were real people. They both became prominent abolitionists as well as advocates for women’s rights despite some concerns by supporters who believed that such rallying might dilute the difficult fight against slavery. While the dialogue, many subplots and storylines were the author’s imagination, other events and even some quotes were taken from some writings, biographies and historical reports which therefore confirms the feel of this story, which is one of authenticity. It is a book that captivates and holds you until the last line!

Comment » | FG - Fiction General, FH - Fiction Historical

Once We Were Brothers by Ronald H. Balson

August 14th, 2014 — 5:28pm

Screen Shot 2014-08-12 at 12.54.35 AMOnce We Were Brothers. – By Ronald H. Balson- I am always interested in another Holocaust novel. Perhaps I don’t want to forget (how could one forget?). Or perhaps it is the trying to figure out how would I have handled these horrible situations had I been born a few generations earlier where some of my ancestors had lived and died. It helps that the author in this case; Ronald Balson has a fresh perspective. He introduces us to situation where Ben Solomon, an elderly Holocaust survivor confronts Elliot Rosenzweig, a very wealthy   Chicago philanthropist, of actually being Otto Piatek, a prominent Nazi who executed many Jews in Poland during WW II. On top of this he tells a story how Otto as a young boy had been taken into his household before the war after his own parents abandoned him. When the Nazi’s came to power his parents returned to take the 18 year old back to Germany where he became a high-ranking Nazi who was soon to be assigned to Poland. The now wealthy Chicago man denies this accusation and the plot unfolds as Ben relates his story to Catherine who he hopes will be his attorney in what he wants to be a public lawsuit to expose this man for stealing his and other family’s money and jewels as well as participating in the murder of so many Jews. Ben painfully reveals his memory of the events of his childhood growing up with this man and the hope that Ben’s parents had that the child they had taken in would help them from his new position. Using this vehicle, the  horrific details of the plight of the Jews in Poland are related. So many historical details were worked into the story that I had the impression that this first time author had on his writing desk a history book of all the events that happened in Poland at that time There were twists and turns but there were all familiar situations: the gradual tightening of the noose around the neck of the Jews as they were moved into the Ghetto and eventually were taken to concentrations camps. There was the good Priest hiding some Jews and the underground resistance doing it’s thing and of course the horrendous course of events for so many Jews. It was also a personal story of certain people who we came to know and care about as events transpired during the war and now in modern times as the possibility of a legal trial became a reality.

Although I have experienced many other books and movies about the Holocaust, I was still engrossed and moved by this book. It was not one of the best of the lot on this subject but if you are drawn to this subject you will not be disappointed.

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