Educated by Tara Westover

August 7th, 2018 — 11:59pm

Category: AM - Autobiography or Memoir

Educated by Tara Westover

One of the good things about being a member of a book club is that you get to read books that you might not have chosen on your own. This book is in that category for me. It is a nonfiction story which is the first hand account of a woman who grew up in a rural area in Idaho, where her family was fundamentalist strict Mormon. In fact, her father believed that the end of the world is coming and that he and his family should be constantly preparing for this cataclysmic event. He had them preserve and store food, buried gas tanks in the ground and built underground bunkers. The family did not send their kids to school and did not provide any organized home schooling. The account of their lives is written by one of the daughters of the seven children who was taught to read and write by her mother. She kept a diary upon which most of the book was based. It is a paradox how women were treated as inferior and subservient to men, although the author’s mother was a midwife and her father was a laborer who spent most of his time preparing for the end of the world.

However, the most fascinating part of the story is how the young girl who was the author of this book  was horrendously treated by one of her brothers with no support from her parents, was especially put down by her father and had no schooling through high school. However, she was able to take an entrance exam and be accepted to Brigham Young University and ultimately obtained a PHD and became recognized as one of the outstanding scholars at Cambridge University in England.

There is also a  subplot here,  how her father may have had a mental illness and how the author struggled with her  ambivalent feelings about her siblings and parents. She had psychotherapy which occurred when she miraculously became a college student. I wish that she could have elaborated a little bit more about her insight into this component of her life. Nevertheless, this is a unique story that I found to be a fascinating read.

 

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Home Fire by Kamila Schamsie

July 23rd, 2018 — 11:27pm

Category: FG - Fiction General

Home Fire

by Kamila Schamsie

This is a well-written novel by an experienced author, although I did find it somewhat drawn out.   The story depicts a British-Muslim family of Pakistani origin living in England who have to deal with the situation when one son (who has a female twin sister) decides to explore his long-deceased father’s roots and become a Jihadist. Not only does this disrupt his family but it also impacts on the British Home Secretary whose son has fallen in love with the would be Jihadist’s twin sister. The story provides insight into some of the contemporary political, social and religious turmoil that exists in the world today. It also examines how such struggles impact on family dynamics. The author has a style, which allows the reader to identify with each of the characters and feel their pain

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A Gentleman In Moscow by Amor Towles

May 15th, 2018 — 1:01pm

Category: FG - Fiction General

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

This is an interesting, although somewhat drawn out novel about an era that I have not thought much about. Through the eyes of its main character, Count Rostov, we go through a handful of decades starting in 1922 as the Russian Revolution takes place. Our protagonist is basically sentenced to house arrest in the luxurious Metropol  Hotel in the heart of Moscow. He must change his living quarters to a small room from the prestigious suite he would frequently inhabit before the revolution. He becomes the head waiter in this hotel where he was previously a very honored patron.

Count Rostov befriends a nine-year-old girl who is also living in a hotel and who runs around exploring all the nooks and crannies of this fascinating building and even comes across a pass key for all the rooms. Ultimately, decades later he meets the grown daughter of this young girl. The story is a complicated one, but allows the reader to get a perspective of how life in Russia evolved and impacted many people in different ways. It is also a story about how a mature educated man might be able to live his life if his boundaries were suddenly limited to one building mostly with the same people, although occasionally encountering others who were passing through and even has an opportunity for some romance.

 

 

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The Ghost of The Innocent Man by Benjamin Rachlin

March 20th, 2018 — 5:46pm

Category: HI - History, P - Political

Ghost Of The Innocent Man: A True Story Of Trial And Redemption by Benjamin Rachlin.

Somewhat by coincidence, this non-fiction book continues the theme of An American Marriage, which was the previous book which I recently read and reviewed in this blog. That book was a fictionalized account of a man who was wrongly in prison for a crime that he did not commit and how that impacted himself and his young wife.

This book is a true story of the ultimate development of a remarkable Innocence Inquiry Project in North Carolina. It also follows the story of Willie Grimes, a young innocent man who was accused and convicted of raping a 65-year-old woman and spent 20 years in prison. The author of this book was not an attorney but rather was a writer who undertook this writing project when he was 26 years old. He traced the birth of the Innocence Project, which started at the University of North Carolina and Duke University Law School and then coalesced over a few years into a state sanctioned Innocence Commission that provided an official process for examining the case of convicted prisoners who may have completely exhausted their appeals process and could still have a pathway to having their cases reexamined.

The author told the story of young attorneys who became involved in this project while also working with smart idealistic law students, as they became the last resort for prisoners who may have been totally innocent. The author’s study did interview the various founders and pioneers of this project and told in great detail the trials and tribulations of getting it off the ground. The very interesting story of the birth of this project was interspersed with the equally remarkable story of Mr. Grimes’ voyage through the judicial system and his experience in numerous prisons in North Carolina over the years. The author related in exquisite detail Mr. Grimes’ interactions with various cellmates, prison guards, doctors, as well as his visits to Jehovah Witness people who became very important to him. In fact, my biggest criticism of this book was the repetitive recounting of every interaction that poor Mr. Grimes had in prison. The author literally seemed to reveal “every detail” and report from Mr. Grimes’ case manager in prison, every unremarkable note by nurses, psychologists, guards, every comment, and minor infarction while in prison as well as many repetitive thoughts that Mr. Grimes may have had.

The author also provided the details of seemingly every letter or communication between the client and his various lawyers and between various people in the Innocence Project that were trying to help him and develop their program. Yes, this approach conveyed the tedious life that Mr. Grimes had in prison and the tremendous attention to detail of those who were trying to help him had to go through, I got that point! However, I felt that this was way overdone and made the reader spend much more time than needed in order to get it.

It was quite fascinating to come to understand some of the complications of doing hair analysis analysis, and even potential DNA analysis although Mr. Grimes’ trial predated the sophisticated DNA techniques that are used today. The reader also learned about the importance of saving evidence from the crime scene and how this may or may not always be done. However once again, these points in my opinion were way too much repetitive.

There was one question that was always on my mind and never answered in the book. Early on when Mr. Grimes was arrested, he claimed he was innocent and offered to take a lie detector test. This request was never followed up by the police or by his own attorney. I understand that such tests are not foolproof, but could not such a test, if it had supported his claim, have helped him in his appeal?

There came a time during his incarceration where Mr. Grimes could have found a pathway to change his life sentence by being paroled, if he took a special course for sexual offenders but as part of that process, it would have required him to apologize and ask for forgiveness for his “crime.” He refused to do this as he always contended his innocence. In the end, after more than 20 years in prison, as the reader suspected throughout the book, the Innocence Project was successful in allowing Mr. Grimes to be judged to be innocent and gain his freedom.

However, the book does leave us with the awareness that such innocence projects do not readily exist throughout the country and there are only a few * like this one, which leaves the reader with the awareness how there is a serious defect in our criminal justice system that needs to be addressed.

  • There is a  large well known DNA project and there are smaller projects throughout the country  such as the one in Alabama which was written about in a book titled Just Mercy  which was also  reviewed in this blog  :

 

 

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And then All Hell Broke Loose by Richard Engel

March 17th, 2018 — 5:59pm

Category: AM - Autobiography or Memoir, HI - History, P - Political

And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades in the Middle East by Richard Engel

I have always enjoyed Richard Engel’s television reports from the Middle East. He comes across as a brave, dedicated, knowledgeable reporter. More recently, I have seen him on NBC with a helmet and flak jacket reporting riots and in the middle of dangerous situations. Therefore, it was quite interesting to read about his determination as a young man to be a reporter and why he chose to specialize in the Middle East. He certainly was ambitious, but he was willing to put in hard work and to climb a ladder going from a freelancer to NBC’s go-to person in the Mid East. His adventures included a situation where he was captured and held prisoner. The book had the makings of a interesting movie or documentary.

The history of this area of the world has always seemed quite complicated to me. As part of this book, Engel makes an effort to trace the history of this part of the world back to ancient times. He makes a professional attempt to describe the history dating back to Mohammed and even earlier. He explains the differences between various groups and sects, such as Shiites and Sunnis and goes into great detail about the various leaders (mostly not elected) who were strong in the various countries and describes how they have impacted the history of this region. He tells how each one came to power as well as why they were able to stay in power or were toppled by opponents, sometimes with or without the help of the United States or other outside countries. I wish I could say that I am greatly enlightened by these descriptions and that I now have a coherent understanding of the history and the various power of factions in the Mid East but unfortunately, that would not be true. While Engel is clearly a knowledgeable scholar of the history and of the intricacies, they still blend together in my mind although I have not given up on trying to master an understanding of them.

While I am sure Engel would disagree, I did feel that he was somewhat unsympathetic to Israel. He noted at one point when he and his young first wife lived in Jerusalem, most of the Americans that he met there “were deeply involved in their temple groups.” He went on to say that he was “never able to break into their close-knit communities.” Also, in describing the Israeli ministers at all level, he noted, “I never saw such a well-oiled public relations machine.” When describing life under the Oslo Agreement, for the Palestinians living in the West Bank, he emphasized how blatantly unfair it was to the Palestinians, “it was a strange system which Palestinians had different rights depending where they lived.” He made the statement that “Many Israelis then and now, scarcely saw the Palestinians as human.” During the confrontation between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians throwing rocks at them, he noted that the Israelis shot rubber bullets, which he then added, “could cause fatal hematomas” as if the rocks thrown at the soldiers were not dangerous. Furthermore, in his description of the Israeli-Lebanon conflict, I thought he was negative towards Israel. I have never doubted Engel’s attempts at being an objective reporter, but as noted, I did think he was unfairly unsympathetic to Israel.

Despite my feelings about his one-sided view of Israel and my own difficulty in grasping a substantial piece of the history lessons he tried to give, I found this book a very a interesting and worthwhile read from a familiar television reporter for whom I have great admiration.

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An American Marriage : A Novel by Tayari Jones

February 20th, 2018 — 1:34pm

Category: FG - Fiction General, FR - Fiction Romance

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

This is a story of an unusual love triangle. A young married loving couple finds themselves involuntarily separated for five years. When there is an opportunity to reunite, wouldn’t you know if there is a third party on the scene? The story deals not only with love but with morality. The author presents the inner personal thoughts of each protagonist going back and forth between each one. The reader has an opportunity to empathize with each person as there is a building up to a very complicated conclusion.

The main characters are Black and the author is reminding the reader that our society frequently does not play fair with people of color. As the story builds to its crescendo and conclusion, I am on the edge of my seat but I also felt that I was being whipped back and forth by the author, which was very disconcerting. However, whether you feel gratified by the ending or not, it is worth going along for the ride .

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Underground in Berlin: A Young Woman’s Extraordinary Tale of Survival in the Heart of Nazi Germany by Marie Jalowicz Simon

February 15th, 2018 — 12:18am

Category: Uncategorized

Underground in Berlin: A Young Woman’s Extraordinary Tale of Survival in the Heart of Nazi Germany by Marie Jalowicz Simon (translated by Anthea Bell with a foreword and afterword by Hermann Simon)

Hermann Simon knew his mother as a loving parent who was a Professor of Classical Antiquities at the Humboldt University of Berlin. He also knew that his mother survived World War II by staying and hiding most of the time in Berlin. During that period in Berlin, so she would not be discovered as a Jewish girl in her 20s and sent to a concentration camp. She rarely spoke about this experience and her son really didn’t know the details. Shortly before her death in 1998, he put a tape recorded in front of her and she agreed to tell her story.

Not only did Ms. Simon tell the story chronologically in vivid detail, but she also revealed her inner thoughts and feelings. She related how at first she wore the yellow Jewish star as was expected to be worn by all Jews in the city, although periodically she would hide it. She did the required work in a German factory making screws for war weapons. Then when her parents were “deported” and nobody knew exactly what their fate would be, she decided to “go to ground” which meant to go underground living in Germany. She hid her Jewish identity and found temporary lodging with non-Jewish friends. She would spend a few days or a week or two and then have to move on and try to find some other place to live.. At times, the circumstances was such that she had to give sexual favors and even got married for a short time in order to have a place to live. She had trouble getting food and most of the time she was in great hunger. Sometimes she had to sit in a wicker chair for hours at a time or sleep in the makeshift bed in the corner of somebody’s apartment who was risking their own lives by hiding her.

She was “underground” for about three years. She recalled not only the details of each phase of her hiding but painted a clear picture of the people she met and with whom she interacted. But most interesting was her ongoing recounting of her fears and feelings as she walked around the city or read books in an uncomfortable living arrangement with constant hunger. There’s no complicated plot or strongly unforgettable characters (other than Ms. Simon). We could appreciate the kindness of so many people who risked their lives to hide her. Her experience after the Russians liberated Berlin was also quite interesting.

We owe a debt of gratitude to Ms. Simon and her son for leaving the legacy of her experience as the young Jewish woman in Berlin during the war who “went to ground.” This book may not achieve the literary acclaim of some of the classic Holocaust books, but I still found it unforgettable. We all should be appreciative that the author and her son made the effort to preserve her story for future generations.

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10% Happier:How I Tamed the Voices In My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, And Found Self-Help That Actually Works- A True Story by Dan Harris

January 16th, 2018 — 11:36pm

Category: AM - Autobiography or Memoir, MHP - Mental Health/Psychiatry

10% Happier: How I Tamed The Voice In My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, And Found Self-Help That Actually Works – A True Story by Dan Harris.

I never had a desire to meditate or develop mindfulness. This may be because in my work as a psychiatrist, I am always exploring the past to understand the present. I also seem to be attuned to capturing the present moment for future reflections rather than be intensely into the present. Frequently, I am moved to take photographs to hold on to a special moment. However, that does not mean that I am not curious to understand why many people whom I respect are into some form of achieving mindfulness. I was not quite moved to go to a retreat or read some esoteric books about Buddhism, meditation, or the like. However, when someone recommended this New York Times bestselling book by Dan Harris, a TV news reporter and anchorman, I thought I would give it a try.

This is a down to earth, humorous at times but a genuine journey by a guy who is bothered by the voices in his head (no real hallucinations), racing thoughts (no apparent manic problem) which he felt made him anxious  a good deal of the time. He had tried what appeared to be a reasonable run at psychotherapy, which may have helped somewhat, but his curiosity about exploring mindfulness persisted.

Mr. Harris met some serious practitioners of various forms of mindfulness and meditation, which he describes in a very readable style. He tried very hard (and I believe he succeeded) in explaining his journey and his personal experience. He gives a blow by blow (or should I say breath by breath account) as he learned to look inward to his breathing and his inner thoughts. He carefully describes the various steps, which he has tried as he learned to meditate and tells how it has been meaningful to him. In a humorous and at times self-deprecating manner, he seems to be quite sincere as he shows and discusses his various attempts and experiences. It appears to have worked for him. Not only has it worked for him, but also I believe he has written a very readable and successful book.

 

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From sand and Ash by Amy Harmon

January 6th, 2018 — 12:37am

Category: FH - Fiction Historical, FR - Fiction Romance, Uncategorized

From Sand and Ash by Amy Harmon

If I had to make a list of the books that made the greatest impression upon me, I’m pretty sure I would include the Diary of Anne Frank, Schindler’s List and Sophie’s Choice. Not surprising these books all deal with the Holocaust. Growing up in the post World War II, I became acutely aware of the details of what was done to the Jewish people in Europe in the previous decade. My own relatives who are not “survivors” but had family in Europe who perished during that period of time rarely talked about the details which probably fueled my interest. Being Jewish, I felt a personal connection to understand this horrific period of history. As a young psychiatrist working in Brooklyn, I treated a number of children of concentration camp survivors which made a lasting impression on me.

In the past few years, several excellent books which delved into this subject have been reviewed in this blog. This includes How we Survived, The Nightingale, All the Light We Cannot See, Once We Were Brothers, Maus I&II and The Book Thief.(you can click these titles to see my review of each of them )

This current novel From Sand and Ash by Amy Harmon examines the impact of the Holocaust in Italy. In particular, it puts a light on the heroic efforts of members of the Catholic clergy who secretly risked their lives to save many Jews who had become the target of the fascist government of Mussolini which was was allied with Hitler.

The main characters are a Catholic priest and a Jewish young woman who grew up together since childhood. The author in the postscript revealed that these characters were fictional but all the horrible events depicted were real and based on factual events. The author appeared to pay close attention to historical details at the same time that she wrote a beautiful love story. As I finally closed the book after completing it I asked myself three familiar questions: How could so many people do such terrible things to the Jews? How did some people develop the courage to risk their lives and the lives of their families to try to hide and save so many Jews. What would I have done if I had faced the challenges of that time period?

This is a well-written book that may not answer these questions but will provide a page turning experience, which will hold your interest and attention as well as connecting to your emotions.

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Strangers In Their Own Land By Arlie Russell Hochschild

December 17th, 2017 — 11:51pm

Category: P - Political, Social

Strangers In Their Own Land

Anger And Mourning On The American Right. A Journey To The Heart Of Our Political Divide by Arlie Russell Hochschild.

The title and subtitles pretty much summarizes the heart of this book. It is the story of the journey of a prominent sociologist from the University of California at Berkeley who is clearly quite liberal on the political spectrum. However, she had a strong desire to understand the other side of the political divide and put herself in the shoes of people who identify with the Tea Party and its followers.

Through some personal connections of people that she had met, she is able to travel to places in the Deep South particularly the State of Louisiana and spend time with real people who live and work in red states and identify with the Tea Party. She comes to understand and shares with the reader a metaphor or concept of “Standing in a long line waiting for your piece of the American dream.” The typical person who she met, who she felt appeared to identify with this idea of patiently standing in line was often Christian, male, at least middle age and hard working. Of course, there were many women and younger people and other variations. But the important part of this metaphor that the “people standing in line” believed was that there were other people who were cutting into the line in front of them. These “cutters” were often immigrants, refugees, people of color and any minority you might think of. This “cutting in front of them” was usually felt to be sponsored by government action and government program such as welfare, affirmative action and other programs. There were deep emotional feelings that were connected with these ideas which appeared to block out any awareness of how many government programs have been used by their forebearers, family members and even themselves such as Medicaid, Medicare, government loans, school support, etc. In fact, many of these people actually see former President Barack Obama himself as typifying the people who they felt cheated them out of their piece of the American dream.

Ms. Hochschild clearly conveys that most of the people she met in her journey were kind, caring people who were often charitable to strangers. Some, but not all, do have deep prejudice. We see in her many discussions and listening sessions that the author had in the land of the right, there is a little room for debate, but that it requires listening and empathy to gain insight into a thinking of the people who she met. Clearly, Ms. Hochschild has a great ability to listen and is quite empathic which does not mean that she agrees with the subjects in her book.

The voyage which the author has taken is in my opinion is most amazing when she tries to understand how the Tea Party and its followers view environmental damage. She met many people who have clearly seen their beloved home state, home town and in some cases their own health and the health of their children, all damaged by gross negligence caused by big unregulated industry. You would think that people who are in this sad situation would welcome protection by government and government regulations. But instead, their predisposition against government and their view that government has been unfair to them, does not allow them to embrace the regulations that are needed to protect them.

The words of this review cannot give you a true understanding of the feelings of the people that she meets in this book. In my opinion, there are many solid facts that argue against the beliefs and conclusions that these Americans have made. The author’s journey makes it clear that rational debate will not begin to heal the chasm that exists at present. Perhaps there needs to be another important book written this time by a southern Tea Party author who will come to the blue states and try to understand why so many of us are acutely aware that “there for the grace of God go us.” We know the story of our ancestors and we experience the story of America quite differently than they do, but hopefully their empathy will allow them to understand us and perhaps we can all come together at some future time.

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