Category: AM – Autobiography or Memoir


Just Mercy -A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson

February 20th, 2017 — 2:56pm

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

I must admit that when I started this book, I was not in favor of the death penalty, mainly because I felt there might be some isolated cases where someone might be executed when they were innocent and actually did not commit premeditated murder. Now after having read this eye-opening excellent book. I am strongly against the death penalty for many reasons. I have a much more enlightened view of the criminal justice system in the United States and the tremendous injustices brought about by mass incarceration particularly in the south, to blacks and also to children who are often tried and sentenced as if they were grown adults. I had no idea of the miscarriages of justice that occur in this country.

The person I have to thank for this new valuable insight is the author of this book, Bryan Stevenson. Through his writing, I learned how as a Harvard law student, he volunteered to assist a small group working in Alabama to appeal death sentences of of prisoners on death row. His interest in this work led him to devote his career to working in this area and ultimately founding the Equal Justice Institute in Alabama. He has won relief for dozens of condemned prisoners, argued five times before the Supreme Court and won national acclaim for his work challenging bias against the poor and people of color. He has received numerous awards, including the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” grant.

In this book, Stevenson allows the reader to understand in great detail how in many cases, clearly innocent people were railroaded through the criminal justice system to a guilty and death penalty sentence. Improper jury selection, failure of defense lawyers to bring in witnesses or important exculpatory evidence, prosecutors who hid important evidence from the defense and judges making improper rulings were just some of the factors which put innocent people on death row. There also were numerous examples of people being sentenced to death in prison (meaning a life sentence) often for non-homicidal crimes. There also was a description of the treatment of children to the same fate. Many of these teenage kids, sometimes 13 years old, were clearly innocent or were only peripherally involved in a non-homicidal crime but nevertheless were sentenced to death in prison via a life sentence. The predominance of these injustices occurred in southern states mainly to blacks which revealed this phenomenon as an extension of slavery in this country. Speaking of slavery, I could not believe the forced coercion that occurred in many prisons which was clearly cruel and unfair. Any failure of these prisoners to participate in such activities which might be picking cotton or operating sometimes dangerous machinery for long hours could lead to very uncomfortable solitary confinement as well as beatings and other violent attacks.

It is one thing to discuss all this issues with statistics and general statements which were then documented. In fact, seven and a half percent of this book was made up of documented lawyer-like references or citations to substantiate the terrible injustices described. However, it is even more effective when the author goes into great detail describing the history of real people whose lives are destroyed by unfair imprisonment and horrendous treatment. Mr. Stevenson’s personal interaction with many of these prisoners brings them to life in the pages of this book and makes a need to improve our justice system all the more imperative. It is also easy to empathize with his feelings not only for the innocent unfairly treated adults and children, but even those who were guilty of crimes and may deserve some punishment but also deserve our mercy.

Comment » | AM - Autobiography or Memoir, O - Other - Specify, P - Political

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

December 16th, 2016 — 1:05am

screen-shot-2016-12-14-at-10-59-30-pmHillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis

by J.D. Vance

This is a compassionate view of the white lower working class in which the author grew up. It provides an insight to the part of rural America which supported the incoming President of the United States, Donald Trump. The author proudly wears the name “hillbilly” and acknowledges that many parts of America look down upon that designation.

J.D. Vance grew up in Middletown, Ohio after his grandparents immigrated from Kentucky where coal mining jobs and other work were drying up and the mills and factories of the Mid-West seemed to offer opportunity for employment and some upward mobility. As we know, more recently there have been rough times for this area which became known as the “rust belt.” If you are not coming from a family of some means that is handed over to you, one must rely on the character traits that you have that will motivate you and allow you to navigate in this world. Family is very crucial here. J.D. Vance certainly did not have a role model from his parents. His mother, who showed flashes of caring for him did not provide emotional or any other type of support. She was a drug addict who ran through about five different husbands.

J.D. Vance’s saviors were his grandparents. His grandfather known as Papaw was probably an alcoholic who at least had a job but didn’t form any strong bond with the author. The most important person to him in his youth was his grandmother known as Mamaw – a very tough woman with whom he periodically lived and who gave him confidence in himself. He was obviously bright but came very close to dropping out of high school. Thanks to Mamaw, an occasional teacher and perhaps one or two other relatives he developed the “right stuff” not only to graduate high school but then had the where with all to join the United States Marine Corps where he served for four years. Having recently seen the movie “Fences” starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, we also appreciated another situation where joining the Marine Corps after high school, in this case a young black man was able to receive support and direction that he couldn’t get from his family.

J.D. Vance’s success in going through Ohio State University after the Marine Corps and working at various jobs to provide him money that he needed reflected his determination. He was then surprised at getting accepted at Yale Law School with very good financial support because he was probably the most needy student that was admitted that year. His observations of what it meant to be a student at Yale Law School were notable. He made the point that it was the connections and the networking which made all the difference in the world and opened so many doors for him.

Mr. Vance on one hand makes the point that self-will and determination are the necessary ingredients to succeed in the world but he also says that he wouldn’t have succeeded without the love and confidence in him provided by his grandparents. Without these factors he is sure he would not have made it out of Appalachia. This book informs us about the lives, trials and tribulations of people that many of us might never meet. It provides important insight and raises some very stimulating questions. It is a book well worth reading.

 

Comment » | AM - Autobiography or Memoir

My Way by Paul Anka

November 21st, 2016 — 4:44pm

My Way by Paul Ankascreen-shot-2016-11-21-at-2-08-00-am

I have always enjoyed the music of Paul Anka. So when someone told me that he wrote this book and told all about the behind the scenes goings on of the Rat Pack in Las Vegas, I thought it might be worth reading, especially since Frank Sinatra has always been one of my heroes.

Well, it turned out to be a very interesting book, but the heroes moved down a couple of notches. Frank Sinatra turns out to frequently be an unpleasant drunk when he drank lot which he often did. Sammy Davis, Jr., is shown to be a promiscuous bisexual but interestingly enough, Dean Martin wasn’t the lush that was often his public persona and apparently avoided the wild drinking parties of the other Rat Pack members.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that women were objectified by this group. Sinatra apparently surprised his friends when he said in response to a question that the women who was best in bed wasn’t Ava Gardner but was Angie Dickinson, adding according to Anka that he said he “really loved that woman.”

Paul Anka was born in Canada and burst on to the world stage as a teenager. He is a very talented singer and songwriter who has reinvented himself several time and still is performing into his ‘70s. His love of his work clearly comes through in this book. His song writing ability and his decision to write for other performers as well as himself makes him quite unique. He wrote Frank Sinatra’s signature song “My Way” and even wrote the Tonight Show theme song among numerous other mega hit songs. He has performed in just about every major venue around the world and has recorded bestselling albums in the United States and in other countries, as well as in different languages. Not only was he friends and part of the Rat Pack but he was also good friends with Elvis, Bobby Darin, Bob Dylan and numerous other big name stars.

The person who writes the book gets to paint his own history and is able to tell about others any way that he wishes to do so. For example, Anka relates how Ed McMahon was a somewhat stingy guy and one time Anka played a joke on him by calling his hotel room and pretending to be the hotel staff. He told McMahon that there were going to be noisy renovations taking place near his room and that they can move him to another room or let him stay there for free and give him ear muffs to block out the sound which was the choice that McMahon made.

The reader gets the impression that Anka avoided heavy drinking and drugs and we only get a vague reference that he had all the girls he wanted early in his career. He tells how he loved his parents who were quite supportive of him. His mother died at an early age and his father helped him in his business. Anka had five daughters from his first marriage which lasted 38 years and then was briefly married for 18 months. He revealed very little about his personal foibles but I thought his description of his long marriage and the breakup was notable and I will quote part of it here.

I am a singer of love songs, I sing songs of everlasting love, how you’re the only one – and I believe in it. But sometimes these things don’t work out in your private life. I was married to Anne for 38 years and I love her still. She is the mother of my five daughters who have all brought terrific son-in-laws into our family and we had a great life together. I love this woman. I always will. Getting divorced from Anne was just something I had to do for myself. Our kids were gone, our lives changed, our relationship changed. I can’t remain in something – even a long time of loving marriage – when I’m no longer experiencing things honestly. I didn’t want to be dishonest to someone I love even if that meant separating and so in 2001, Anne and I were divorced. There was no animosity, no big fights – I just wanted out of the box. We talk almost every day… I gave Anne everything that was legally hers and I threw in our art collection (that is worth millions) because I know how much she loved it, and other considerations but I said, “None of this down the middle stuff.

Anka appears to be very gratified for his great success as a performer, he describes many musicians, managers, agents, and performers who were his good friends. He detailed his relationship with Steve Wynn, the wealthy Las Vegas hotel mogul and his many interesting stories about him including one about Donald Trump which is in character with his current persona.

Towards the end of the book, Anka clearly describes how he feels every time he performs and steps on the stage. The intensity of that experience and his connection with the audience is very impressive.

I am sure he didn’t write this book for the royalties that it might bring. He probably chose to share at least part of his life and perhaps try to influence the legacy that he will leave. It was a nice read but he need not worry, as his music will live on and define Paul Anka for many generations. To listen to one of Paul Anka’s biggest hits click here.

Comment » | AM - Autobiography or Memoir

Moving On- A Life by Oliver Sacks

December 18th, 2015 — 9:48pm

Moving On – A Life by Oliver Sacks

Screen Shot 2015-12-18 at 5.25.45 PMI never read any of his books other than this biography. I read about many of them. I don’t recall hearing him speak in person although I believe I attended one of his lectures at the American Psychiatric Association meeting. I was familiar with many of the places that he spoke about in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles and I even had some friends and colleagues who knew his analyst, David Shengold. Although I was never anywhere near being in his league as a clinician, writer and brilliant mind, his areas of interest had always fascinated me. So I guess you can say in reading this book, I had a certain amount of kinship and empathy for him although in many ways he was miles apart from my world.

He was born in England to a Jewish family. Two of his cousins were Al Capp, the famous cartoonist and Abba Eden, a famed Israeli Prime Minister. One of his brothers was schizophrenic and we can’t help wondering if his desire to crack the code on the workings of the brain may have had its origin with that experience. Both his parents were physicians and he has early memories of hearing them discuss interesting cases. His father thought it was a shame when a case  was written up in the popular press but his mother was a great storyteller. No doubt it was at his parent’s knee that he became fascinated by case histories.

The reader of this book will benefit by his ability to tell good stories. At times he jumps around and he may lose you with the exact time sequence but that will be a small price to pay for an interesting story of a brilliant man who led his life, well lived, his way.

It was his misfortune to be born gay at a time when it was considered to be a choice, rather than an inborn destiny that we know it is today. It is sad to hear that after he had his first sexual experience, he had none for the next 35 years. It was heartwarming to see that he fell in love and was able to live a happy intimate life with a man in the twilight of his life.

In a small way, I could relate to his early fascination with the working of the brain and the scientific advances that were occurring, as he was completing medical school and making the decision to become a neurologist. This was approximately the time that I was in college in the late 1950s. I had participated in a special project where we implanted electrodes into the brain of a cat, in which we could then record after the cat had recovered from surgery and resumed it’s relatively normal life. There were situations where we could tell in advance when the cat was going to make a decision, based on the brain waves before the cat made them. It was very tempting for me because of this experience to want to choose a career in neurology but for me, clinical psychiatry beckoned and that became the direction that I took. We are all fortunate that Dr. Sacks followed his interest in the workings of the brain.

When Dr. Sacks came to the United States, he was in his ‘20s and his first stop was San Francisco where he became an intern at Mount Zion Hospital. Not only was this young doctor quite fearless on his motorcycle but he was also fearless in his self-experimentation with LSD, PCP, later known as Angel Dust and who knows what else. I am sure his experience with mind altering drugs at this time paved the way to his lifelong study of the brain and the workings of the mind.

He dropped a tidbit taking place during this time period about how he got out of the draft. I know firsthand that young doctors were subject to being drafted into the military during both the Korean War and the Vietnam War. It was in 1968 that he said that he persuaded the draft board that he was not suitable material for the draft. I wonder what this was all about.

As someone who has worked in academia, I was particularly interested in what he had to say about one of his first jobs working in a clinical research lab. He reports that on his own, he made observations that he felt merited a write-up for a journal. When he wrote his first paper and it was accepted for publication, his boss was furious and fired him and then according to Dr. Sacks used some of his data which the boss claimed was his own for another publication. I have seen similar situations where there is conflict between the young person and the father figure. I can’t help wondering what would have happened if Sacks had tried to collaborate with his boss. In later years, he described getting along well with his colleagues and sharing data and theories but on the other hand, there seems to be a certain lone wolf quality and approach to his ultimate final products. I really can’t say if he was generous in allowing co-authorships with younger colleagues when he was the famous established author.

His life in Southern California was particularly fun to read about, since he had a house in Topanga Canyon, which is near the area where I now live. He reports zooming around on his motorcycle and it was obviously quite different than it is now, trying to get around on the busy freeway. He reports that he became the doctor of sorts to the Hells Angels, as well as being a Venice Beach bodybuilder.

He really seemed to come into his own once he came to New York. One might have expected him to join the full time faculty at one of the many outstanding medical schools. Instead, he decided to become the peripatetic neurologist by being a consultant to the Beth Abraham Nursing Home , the Little Sisters Nursing Home, both known as “ Manors,” among other places. It was here that he made his groundbreaking observation on post encephalitic patients who received L-DOPA and have their “Awakenings,” often temporary but revealing great insight into the workings of the brain.

His book, by the same name became a New York Times bestseller for 26 weeks and was made into a screenplay by Harold Pinter and into a great movie in which he was played by Robin Williams. This was followed by a number of other world famous books such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife For His Hat, Hallucinations and many others

In his heart and soul, it was clear that he was a storyteller. His understanding of neurology allowed him to listen and observe his patients and make insights that were not only fascinating but were important scientific advances for his time. He was also able to educate the public with his ability to write and make his case histories come alive as real people with unusual problems. He was unbelievably prolific and accumulated thousands of diaries filled with observations of his patients and of the people that he met and interacted with. He became friends and corresponded with some of the great minds of his time, such as Francis Crick (of  the DNA guys Watson and Crick) and Stephen Jay Gould as well as Gerry Edelman, author of the groundbreaking book, Neural Darwinism which Sacks explains in great detail in the biography.

Although I don’t think he mentioned it his book, I read elsewhere and that some of the subjects of his writings didn’t like that they were described in a manner in which t they could be recognized. Perhaps he didn’t get what we now call “informed consent.” He obviously wrote because of his love of the subjects he wrote about as well as because of the love that he had for these people whom he got to know.

Screen Shot 2015-12-18 at 5.26.39 PMOne of the most important subjects of his writings that he definitely had permission to write about was himself. When he severely injured his leg, he was able to write a book titled A Leg to Stand On. In his waning years, he developed a melanoma in his retina. This stimulated him to enlarge upon his earlier observations about vision and consciousness. No doubt , he developed a personal attachment to the people he wrote about but he seemed to be also writing for the personal gratification and acceptance of himself and his works. He related a situation where due to one of his books receiving bad reviews, he went through 3 months of being severely depressed .

Oliver Sacks certainly lived his life to the fullest, He received much recognition for his work. He was also recognized by the Queen of England and honored with the designation of Commander. Not only did he receive much satisfaction from his many accomplishments, but he was able to share so much of his thought process and insights with the people who read his papers and books. He passed away a few months ago (August 2015) but I’m sure that his stories and observations will live on for many generations.

Comment » | AM - Autobiography or Memoir, M - Medical

A Common Struggle: A personal Journey through the Past and Future Mental Illness and Addiction by Patrick J. Kennedy and Stephen Fried

December 9th, 2015 — 11:56pm

Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 6.27.58 PMA Common Struggle: A personal Journey through the Past and Future Mental Illness and Addiction   By: Patrick J. Kennedy and Stephen Fried

This is a story, told in the first person of Patrick J. Kennedy. It is really two stories presented to us simultaneously. It is about Patrick Kennedy, son of Edward Kennedy and nephew of JFK and Bobby Kennedy. He has been a US congressman from Rhode Island for eight terms and was one of the staunch advocates for parity legislation, for mental illness, and addiction. Yet at the same time that he was leading the fight in the United States Congress to bring about these major changes in our healthcare system, he himself was secretly battling mental illness and addiction.

An important part of his personal story was a discussion of alcoholism in his family. Not only was the author an alcoholic but his brother, mother, and father, Ted Kennedy also struggled with this condition. It is significant that all of them except his father ultimately recognized their problem and entered various programs to help themselves. His mother battled alcoholism for a prolonged period of time and yet her condition was not recognized by family members despite the fact that they knew about several hospitalizations and treatment programs that she had undergone.

One of the most revealing insights about his father that he revealed in this book is how Ted Kennedy was traumatized by the tragic death of his three brothers, JFK, Bobby Kennedy, and his oldest brother, Joe Jr., who was killed in World War II. An additional major trauma for Ted Kennedy was the death of the young woman in Chappaquiddick, an incident well covered by the press.

It was not a simple pathway for the author to recognize his own problems. Even after a period of therapy with Psychiatrist Peter Kramer, author of the well known book (Listening to Prozac). Kennedy felt this treatment was helpful but did not eliminate his addiction problem or allow full acceptance of his bipolar condition. He vividly described how he would convince himself that he didn’t have any problems if he didn’t drink in public or take “illegal” drugs.

Patrick Kennedy served in the Rhode Island legislature and was elected as the youngest member of the US Congress in 2004 during a period that his addiction and mental illness was hidden from the public. It was also pretty much hidden from himself.

His colleagues in the US Congress ultimately became aware of his attempts to hide his drinking problem. Kennedy describes an important event for him when in 1996, Minority Leader, Dick Gephardt, offered him the prestigious chairmanship of the Congressional Campaign Committee on the condition that he stop drinking. This made him realize how he was denying that he had a problem that was known to others.

It wasn’t until 2005 that he publicly admitted that he was suffering from a mood disorder that was being treated by a psychiatrist. While his own struggle continued, he became more effective in his advocacy in the US Congress. One misconception he believed had to be clarified concerned Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign against drugs. He felt that this missed the main point that addiction is not something you can simply say no to, just as you can’t say no to cancer. It is a disease and by implying you can just say no stigmatized people who have the genetic propensity to have this disease.

As much as the story of Kennedy’s recognition of his own illness of addiction and mental disease and how he battled it is quite enlightening, the battle for a definitive bill in the US Congress is just as revealing.The events leading up to the 2008 Wellstone and Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act are quite interesting and complicated. They are also quite personal to Patrick Kennedy. It took place at the time that he was relapsing to alcohol and painkillers and also was having an exacerbation of his bipolar condition. While Patrick Kennedy was one of the leading champions in the House of Representatives for this legislation, his father, Ted Kennedy, was a major supporter of this bill in the US Senate. This was also at a time that the senior Kennedy was dying of a brain tumor. Compromises had to be made in the bill and the Senate was reluctant for the legislation to be as comprehensive in various aspects and details of the bill as was wanted by the House of Representatives. There also was a question how the legislation would deal with the new surge of mental health problems occurring in soldiers returning from the war. There was a concern that it should cover PTSD as well as addiction in the returning servicemen. Patrick Kennedy described the dramatic moment that his dying father came to the senate floor to vote for the final version of the bill to the applause of the US Senate.

Even with the passage of this extraordinary legislation, the battle for adequate parity for healthcare support was far from over. The proof and the success of this landmark bill would depend on the implementation by the federal and state governments and certain local rulings are expected to eventually reach the Supreme Court. The 2016 presidential race can certainly also be expected to impact the success of implementation of this legislation. As of this writing, it appears that the Republican candidates may be reluctant to support the implementation of this legislation and provide funding for new programs.

Patrick Kennedy decided to leave the United States Congress in 2010. Since departing from Congress, he has continued to be a leading advocate to bring about implementation of the 2008 legislation for mental illness and addiction. In this regard, among many other things, he has worked with two important organizations in which he plays very active roles. The Kennedy Forum (kennedyforum.org) gathers experts in mental health and addiction and holds important conferences that they hope will ensure implementation of the 2008 legislation. They are also committed to promoting a translation of neuroscience into the preventative and treatment interventions for mental health and addiction. The second organization in which Patrick Kennedy is involved is One Mind (onemind.org), which is dedicated to the promotion and support of “brain health” and creating a fast track for treatment. Their current focus is on new approaches to treat and cure PTSD but they look forward to applying solutions for all brain disease including depression, Parkinsons, ALS, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and addictions.

Patrick Kennedy does not bemoan problems. He is clearly a man not only with a vision but with plans and solutions. He concluded his book with a scorecard of how we should rate our public officials who have the opportunity to pass legislation and make changes. Also at the end of the book, he had a section for people who are dealing with their own mental illness and addiction. He tells them not to be alone in this struggle and how important it is to get treatment. Finally, sandwiched in this book was a series of photographs of many well known members of his family. It brought back many memories to this reader of the great accomplishments of many members of the Kennedy family and of the tragic events that they experienced.

It should be noted that at the time that Patrick Kennedy wrote this book, he was three and a half years sober. He has shown that he is a very accomplished and insightful man. I believe we are going to hear a great deal about him in his advocacy. He has provided in this book a valuable historical account of the reasons to fight for the proper care of mental illness and addiction. I am sure he has a bright future and many people will benefit by his skills and his passion.

Comment » | AM - Autobiography or Memoir, MHP - Mental Health/Psychiatry, P - Political

Deported Colonel a.k.a. Gringo Cabron by Laura Jeannette Gau

October 25th, 2015 — 1:49pm

Screen Shot 2015-10-25 at 11.10.18 AMDeported Colonel a.k.a. Gringo Cabron by Laura Jeannette Gau Stone

This book is meant to be a historical account by a woman who lived in Panama with her family during the reign of tyrannical dictator, Manuel Noriega. She refers to herself in this book as Jenny. The author’s actual name is Laura Jeanette Gau Stone. She is married to United States Army Colonel, Charles Stone. He was the American liaison to the Panama government in the 1980s. The United States at that time had initially been friendly to Noriega and his government until the Americans under President George Bush decided to use military force to remove Noriega from office.

The time period of this book was during the Noriega regime 1983 – 1989. The focus is mostly on Jenny and Chico (the nickname for Colonel Stone) as well as their their family which consists of three daughters. The story is written like a novel but it appears to be the true account of their life. We see how the Doberman (the Panama’s government version of the Nazi storm troopers) have no hesitation in arresting anyone, beating them or taking them off to prison where they can be tortured and killed. Yet the people tried to live a normal life working, sending their kids to school, and going to church. Periodically, there would be protests by groups of people who would try to hold peaceful demonstrations wearing symbolic white shirts. They were called the “Crusaders”. It seems as if the people were hopelessly naïve as Doberman and other designated government troops would frequently charge in and injure and arrest the protesters squashing their attempts at self-expression and opposition. Two of Jenny and Chico’s children at one point were arrested in such activities but fortunately,Chico was able to get them released although their car was destroyed. Chico gradually undergoes a metamorphosis in this thinking from being a loyal soldier who did not initially accept the inhumanities of the oppressive government that he was advising. He eventually was exiled to the United States while his family continued to live in Panama.

The book serves the purpose of educating the readers such as myself about the oppressive lives that the people in Panama had to live during this time. It showed how people could endure such oppression that they could not control and persevered to raise their children with an awareness of the situation but yet some semblance of normality. The gradual revelation of Colonel Stone in realizing the tyrannical nature of the Noriega regime probably is similar to the realization by the U.S. government that they could no longer support that dictator. Noriega was captured during the overthrow of his government and now has spent more than 20 years in prisons, in the United States and Panama.

As revealing and as enlightening as this book has been to me, it has little merit as a good read. While the author’s style is perky, it is quite repetitious. It does not provide the interesting background details that a Doris Kearns, or a Robert McCullough or other author of important historical events would have given. Nor does it have an intriguing plot that makes you not want to put it down that a good historical novel might have. While it is written as a  historical novel and  it is supposed to be the true account of the author’s real experiences. However most of the time, it seems more like a diary where the everyday boring details have not been removed.

2 comments » | AM - Autobiography or Memoir, HI - History

Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide by Michael B. Oren

September 18th, 2015 — 11:03pm

Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli DivideScreen Shot 2015-09-18 at 5.56.52 PM

By: Michael B. Oren

The author is the former Ambassador from Israel to the United States who served 2009-2013 and currently is a member of the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament.

Oren’s journey to this position as Israel’s representative to the United States and the man who was one of the key advisers to Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began when he was growing up in a Jewish family in West Orange, New Jersey. He was bullied then as a child and experienced antisemitism at a young age. At the age of 15, in 1970, Oren visited Israel with a Zionist group where he met Yitzhak Rabin in an encounter which he describes as a life changing event.

He went on to complete college at Columbia and received a master’s degree. He then immigrated to Israel in 1979. He came back to the United States to get a PhD at Princeton. He was married in 1982 to an American woman who also made Aliyah. They went on to have three children.

Oren’s commitment to Israel was more than an intellectual and emotional one. He joined the IDF (Israeli Defense Force) and served as a paratrooper in the 1982 war and saw serious combat. He then worked with the underground in the Soviet Union and was arrested by the KGB. During the Persian Gulf War he was the Israeli liaison to the United States Sixth Fleet. In the 1980s and 1990s, he taught at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and at the university in Tel Aviv. He served in various positions in the Israeli government, and in 2006, was a visiting professor at Harvard and at Yale.

Oren has written numerous articles and a few important books including New York Times listed best selling books titled Faith and Fantasy, the history of America’s involvement in the Middle East and Six Days of War, an historical account of the Six Day War. He also wrote two novels.

So in 2009, when Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister appointmented Oren as Ambassador, he was already a seasoned government advisor as well as a respected historian. He considered himself a dual citizen of Israel and the United States. If fact, he described a very painful moment when he had to give up his US citizenship in order to become Israeli Ambassador to the United States. He vividly described his emotions seeing his passport voided.

Mr. Oren obviously must have kept a very complete diary as he goes on to document his life for the next four years in great detail. The reader has the feeling that the author is reliving the experience moment to moment, telephone call to cellphone call, car ride to plane ride, and so many very personal meetings. He essentially takes the reader up to the door of the Oval Office in the White House as he steps back to sit with the other most senior advisers as President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu hold their personal meetings. There are so many stories of this four-year period which essentially chronicles the delicate situation in the Middle East and the interaction between Israel and the United States.

I came away from this book feeling that Oren was a very loyal Israeli who still loves America. I thought that despite at times his critical view of some of the actions of the United States, he sincerely believed that his first country would always have Israel’s back.

As Oren currently serves in the Knesset, it would not surprise me if he did not someday move up and become part of the top leadership in Israel. This could lead to another important book to allow historians and people like us to gain further insight into the relationship between these two great allies.

 

 

Comment » | AM - Autobiography or Memoir, 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

Power Concedes Nothing by Connie RIce

July 20th, 2014 — 12:58am

Power Concedes Nothing: One Woman’s Quest for Social Justice in American, from the Courtroom to the Kill Zones by Connie RiceScreen Shot 2014-07-19 at 6.40.49 PM

I seldom go around telling certain people that they must read a particular book. I did find myself dong just that in regard to this book. If you have been interested in the battle for social justice, especially in regard to Los Angeles, you will definitely find this book quite fascinating.

Connie Rice (who by the way is a distant cousin of former Secretary of State Condolezza Rice) grew up as the daughter of Air Force officer who was the great grandson of a slave and a mother who was a high school teacher who happened to be the great granddaughter of a slave owner. Her family moved several times before she completed high school. Her parents valued education and she also was quite bright and ended up attending college at Radcliff/Harvard and then going to N.Y.U. Law School. After clerking for some important judges, she could have worked in a prestigious law firm and have a very respectable corporate or white-collar law career. She certainly went on to achieve an extremely respectable career but she chose to do it confronting civil rights and gang violence. The journey that she has taken, the fights that she has undertaken, the forces that she has confronted, the allies that she has worked with and the accomplishments that she has achieved thus far in her still vibrant career are remarkable and are chronicled in this memoir.

Early in her career, she became a part of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (known as the LDF). It was originally pioneered by Thurgood Marshall, before he became the first black Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. I thought I knew something about justice, particularly how capital punishment, was unfairly administered in the U.S. “I didn’t know jack.” The inside stories Ms. Rice reveals in this fight for justice, were eye opening. However, this phase of her career was tame compared to what was to come next when circumstances brought her out to the West Coast to open the Los Angeles branch of the LDF.

Ms. Rice became squarely involved in the battles for social justice in Los Anglees. She takes us through the Rodney King incident where a black construction worker was stopped by the police and  beaten for no cause. Subsequently there were riots in Los Angeles when the police involved in these beatings were exonerated by a trial, which had been moved to Simi Valley, which was a known area where many police families live. Ms. Rice was in many subsequent legal cases where she sued the police and represented victims of police violence. She also tells about the almost impossible to describe gang violence that existed in certain areas of Los Angeles that became known as the “kill zones.” She was known as the “ lady lawyer” as she was introduced to gang activities by a few former gang member who were trying (with mostly futile attempts) to make changes and were trusted within the gangs. Ms. Rice captures the horrible circumstances inside the gangs where there existed a culture dominated by frequent murder of opposing gang members. Two vignettes that she told will illustrate how bad things were and how vividly she was able to describe them.

#1 A teenage boy was approached by the leader of one gang and asked to become a gang member The boy stated that that his family didn’t want him to join and he was involved in schoolwork. After he politely declined a second time, he was asked to view a DVD. In it was shown his younger sister being brutally raped by gang members. He was then told if he didn’t join the gang, his sister would be raped again and murdered. He joined the gang.

#2 A ten-year-old boy was introduced to Ms. Rice by some gang members. She asked the child how he was involved in the gang. He proudly told her that he “shoots people.” When the gang wanted to murder someone, they lured this person to a street where the young boy was unobtrusively stationed. He pulled out the gun that he was trained to use and shot the victim and ran way.

These were just two of the many stories of how the gangs had taken away the lives of young people in more than one way.

The murder rate in Los Angeles was very high and the philosophy of the Los Angeles Police Department at this time was to “contain” the violence rather than try to eliminate it. There was also a certain amount of violence and corruption coming from the police department itself. Connie Rice was one of the soldiers in the battle to change this situation. She used her legal skills as well as her interpersonal ability to begin a sea change that is still going on in Los Angeles. She worked side by side with gang members, gang interventionists, enlightened members of the police department, politicians and other dedicated lawyers. She told of her experience with people from the gangs to others in the trenches with her. She names names, good and bad, from Mayors, police officers and attorneys. Among others, she developed a close alliance with Police Chief Bratton and up and coming Charlie Beck who subsequently became Police Chief when Bratton retired. One of the heroes of the book was Harry Bellafonte and it wasn’t for his singing. Rather it was for the emotional support he played as a father figure for many gang members as well as for his financial support for various programs. Ms. Rice has been an ongoing witness and a participant to bringing about changes in the kill zones that actually significantly reduced the murder rate there. She documented how each murder that did not occur saved close to a million dollars for society as well as the human savings.

Ms. Rice feels that the battle is not over yet. She champions the ideology of Martin Luther King who predicted that significant change wouldn’t occur until there was a “ radical restructuring of society itself and revolution of values.” If you care about the changes that have occurred in Los Angeles in the past few decades and those that need to occur in the future, I suggest that you should read this book.

 

 

 

Comment » | AM - Autobiography or Memoir, P - Political

Mandela Was Late by Peter Mehlman

January 19th, 2014 — 10:45pm

Mandela Was Late by Peter Mehlman my2YeQJRiyXnTugd66nUe09SJ4QLb1iPjsZ-Ktv1HKGyuotNLsOQkWDGM1dAaoPDR13k=s85– I picked this book up while in the middle of the quite long although certainly not tedious Bully Pulpit – soon to be reviewed here. The goal was to read something humorous and light during breaks from the other book. Well, it is certainly light and the chapters are conveniently succinct, sometimes just a few pages. Maybe his chapters are short because that is the way you have to write when you make a pitch for a TV program, which is what this guy does for a living. In fact, I chose the book because the author is proclaimed as a writer and Executive Producer of Seinfeld for nearly all of its nine-year run and is noted as the person coining such terns as “spongeworthy” and “yada yada.” Early in the book I learn that not only was he a key writer for one of my favorite TV shows but he is a New Yorker transplanted to Los Angeles but always appreciating New York as a native when he visits there. I thought I might be able to identify with that state of mind or even the names of all the Los Angeles streets and restaurants which he mentions, most of which I know as a New Yorker transplanted to LA myself.  However, I didn’t find the book particularly humorous or enlightening. The author seems to be writing about his life but as far as I can see all he does is pick up checks for residuals from the Seinfeld Show, write scripts for new sitcoms that sometimes get bought but hardly ever get made or if they get made they barely last. Not that there is anything wrong with that. He is single and we really don’t see any meaningful relationships in his life. Not that there is anything wrong with that either. Nevertheless I tried to relate to his youth in Queens in NYC (I am from Brooklyn but that should be close enough) when he tried to figure out the meaning of the number “69”). Maybe I have aged out of the demographic for this book. It may be a fortyish thing.

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

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