With Labor Day around the corner, I’m indulging in reading rather than writing. In my last blog posting, I shared some of the fiction I’ve read this summer. In today’s blog are some non-fiction suggestions, a mixed bag.
Early this summer, I plowed through Spain in Our Hearts, by Adam Hochschild, a history of the Spanish Civil War from 1936-1939 as seen through the prism of a handful of Americans who volunteered to fight there. The war foreshadowed what World War II was to become, and there is much still to be learned about confronting fascism and anarchy in their early stages rather than assuming they will self-destruct. Other than Ernest Hemingway, who captured his Spanish Civil War experiences in For Whom the Bell Tolls, the half dozen other Americans were not household names but became notable, perhaps even epic, figures in their own right. Spain in Our Hearts gets a little bogged down in the details of munitions, combat vehicles, and other military details, but it conveys the on-the-ground reality of a grim war often romanticized.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi is the memoir of a highly accomplished 36-year-old neurosurgeon who diagnoses his own terminal metastatic lung cancer. A beautiful writer, Kalanithi uses his final 22 months to write about his driving ambition, his disease, his interactions with his patients, his life’s choices, and, of course, his imminent death. The poignant epilogue is written by his wife, Dr. Lucy Kalanithi, who bore him a child just before he died. The book is intimate, compelling, and a three-tissue read.
Boys on the Boat by Daniel James Brown has been sitting on my kindle for months until, impelled by NBC’s coverage of the Olympics, I finally read it. In a way, Boys on the Boat is the typical Olympic anecdote of young people’s struggles against the odds (family dysfunction, poverty, trauma) to achieve the highest level of athletic distinction, but the anecdote is writ larger than the ubiquitous TV segment. The simple story line follows a group of mostly poor boys earning their way to the University of Washington, competing to make the rowing team, developing their skills enough to defeat the powerhouse team from U.C. Berkeley, then beating the elite Eastern teams, going to the 1936 Olympics and coming home champions. Against their remarkable story, Brown captures Depression-era America and Hitler’s rise to power in Europe. A few too many details about the craft of making the shells and the strategy of each and every race, but by and large a good read.
All Who Go Do Not Return, a memoir by Shulem Deen, introduces us to an ultra-Orthodox Jew, abused in the yeshiva as a child, forced into a loveless marriage as a teenager, pummeled by the strictures of the religious community in which he lives. Increasingly, he becomes curious about the secular world, sneaks off to the public library and, later, into Manhattan, and begins to question the beliefs in which he has been reared. Ultimately, he is thrust from the community as a heretic. His wife, with the backing of the elders and rabbis, sues to keep him from his children. This is a stunning opening to a cultish world, painfully recounted. Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman is a similar memoir from the female perspective, not as richly written. Both books reveal the huge personal costs to be paid by individuals in closed communities whose questioning minds and courage to dissent lead them to move out on their own.
Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy is a totally different kind of memoir. Stevenson, a Harvard Law School graduate, moved to the Deep South to take on cases of African-Americans wrongly convicted of rape or murder and has fought the inequities of the criminal justice system over decades. Just Mercy chronicles some of the dramatic cases which he has taken all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. By focusing on the personal experiences of the wrongly convicted, the reader gets a real feel for the outrages of justice unfairly meted out. While Stevenson writes of the work of the non-profit he established to pursue those cases, this memoir is more about his crusade than about the details of his personal life, which may have gotten short shrift through a lifetime of battling to right wrongs. This is an important book to read at a time when our gridlocked Congress is leaving criminal justice reform on the back burner.
Finally, two books on either side of the political divide. My Life on the Road is Gloria Steinem’s memoir of her life as a feminist and organizer. While the term is over-used, she is an icon of the women’s movement, and this book is must reading for millennials who believe that of course women are equal, of course they have reproductive rights, or course they can do anything, and what’s the big deal. Steinem’s own efforts to heighten consciousness and change societal norms should never be taken for granted. The memoir is an honest look at her unstable, itinerant family and what she learned from talking to women across America.
Finally, I confess to reading Gary Bryne’s Crisis of Character. Byrne is the retired member of the uniformed Secret Service detail protecting the President and First Lady during the Clinton administration. Under the guise of being a memoir about himself, it is really a hit piece against the Clintons by someone who, critics say, did not have the intimate access he claims to have had. Regardless, there is absolutely nothing new in the book. Most people have heard stories of Hillary’s secretive tight inner circle (which Byrne was obviously not a part of), of her throwing things and screaming at repeat philanderer Bill (well, wouldn’t you?), and all the other recycled scandals. The book is a rehash of rumors and innuendoes (think Vince Foster, Whitewater). Save your money, and read current campaign coverage instead.
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