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Men We Reaped: A Memoir
Men We Reaped: A Memoir
Price: $8.79

5.0 out of 5 stars A tour de force that is highly readable., December 5, 2013
Jesmyn Ward presents an authentic portrait of what it is like to grow up Black and poor in the South. She uses her own family and the unjust deaths of five Black men (including her brother) as the lens through which the picture is focused. She has a superb sense of place, and she paints her subjects with a novelist’s nuanced brush.

This book is for everyone, but especially for anyone who thinks, as our own Chief Justice stated - in a shocking example of the ignorance of privilege – that we can “take race off the table.” In Ward’s book, racism and poverty come in both brutal assaults and little daily insults. One young man died a horrific death (spoiler alert) in an accident due to a faulty railroad crossing that authorities couldn’t be bothered to fix in a Black area.

But what really shines through is Ward’s portrayal of members of her community who have all the values that are held dear by white, middle class Americans: hard work, concern that one’s children will do better than they did (a dream that is dying for all of us except the most wealthy, as jobs fritter away), concern for the safety of their children, holding one’s marriage together, etc. Ward’s Mom appears especially heroic as she cleans houses night and day to support her four children and raise them. One very effective part of the book is Ward’s description of her own torment at the hands of bullies and of her struggles with self-esteem. Her words are an inspiration to all of us who weren’t prom queen material (or thought we weren’t).

Ward has that mark of the best writers – putting in words what so many must feel and know. I can highly recommend this book.


Kaddish
Kaddish
by Leon Wieseltier
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.41
79 used & new from $0.01

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant and original, February 22, 2013
This review is from: Kaddish (Paperback)
I read this book about 6 years ago, before my own father died, and it has stuck with me. "Kaddish" contains two streams: one describes the author's faithful saying of kaddish (the Jewish prayer said in a quorum of 10 adults - a minyan - for ones parents for 11 months after the parent's death), and the other describes his study into the origin and history of the customs surrounding this prayer. Each stream is a profound rendition of two pillars of Jewish practice: prayer and study. The first describes how an agnostic (at best) gains a measure of enlightenment from performing the mitzvah of saying kaddish; at the end of the book, after the final kaddish is said, Wieseltier walks from the minyan into the sunlit day. It is faithful practice rather than faith itself that brings the author home (a bit, anyway). We learn nothing about Wieseltier's Dad or their relationship, but that isn't the point because one says kaddish for a parent whether he is a pimp or a tzaddik. The book is about the mitzvah.

The second stream draws us into the year of study that the author essentially dedicated to his father. Wieseltier modestly wades through texts written in terse rabbinic Hebrew and Aramaic (he is a yeshiva graduate: it would be difficult for one without such a background to reach this level of authentic study) to spoon-feed us the new knowledge he has gained. We are brought to the table to sit with the "sages of the ages" to learn, in the most genuinely Jewish way.

I have a few nitpicks: in his study I would have liked to have seen some mention of modern practices, such as that of women saying kaddish in liberal streams of Judaism (the traditional obligation falls on sons, particularly first-born sons). Even in Orthodox communities, women are seen saying kaddish: does that fulfill the mitzvah if there are no sons, or are other relatives or even hired strangers required? I just wondered.

I am writing this review now to highly recommend the book, whether you are saying kaddish or not, whether you are Jewish or not.


The Undead: Organ Harvesting, the Ice-Water Test, Beating-Heart Cadavers--How Medicine Is Blurring the Line Between Life and Death
The Undead: Organ Harvesting, the Ice-Water Test, Beating-Heart Cadavers--How Medicine Is Blurring the Line Between Life and Death
by Dick Teresi
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.58
51 used & new from $3.00

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A good counterargument to the current organ-harvesting philosophy, January 9, 2013
Teresi offers a counter argument to the "harvesting and transplant above all else" ethic that has taken hold in the medical community. Disturbing examples of recovery from what appeared to be near-dead people, combined with our ignorance about when death occurs, cry out for putting a brake on the whole organ-harvesting enterprise. (On a personal note, a friend's 19-year old child was on life support for 9 days and fully recovered). The friction between the rights of the dying patient and their families, and those waiting for transplants - sometimes with their own lives in the balance, is vividly portrayed. The book argues that the pendulum has swung far too much in the direction of harvesting. Teresi also deals with the lack of dignity in the whole process. The cadaver is not a person but an object, a commodity, to the medical community.

I like Teresi's point of view that science is uncertain about a lot of what we think we know. Doctors and brain scientists don't really know what is going on with people in vegetative states, comas, or on life support.

The book is not especially well-written: there is a lot of narrative ribbing, personal asides, disorganization, and redundancy. But his point-of-view is well-formed.


Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
by Cheryl Strayed
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.22
104 used & new from $7.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Journey into a new life, January 8, 2013
Strayed takes the most trite of story lines - the journey as a process of self-discovery - and turns it into something entirely new. The journey itself - wrought with danger, hardship, and uncertainty - is suspenseful, but the real joy is the subtlety and understanding with which Strayed describes each of her characters (Emilio Estevez's wonderful movie "The Way" has some similarities here). Juxtaposed with the journey itself are the little messes that Strayed has made in her life: her divorce (for which she takes complete responsibility), the early death of her mother, which left her bereft and wandering, her heroin addiction, and her inability to focus. It is the lack of self-pity, and her never blaming anyone other than herself, that pulls her through. Life is ever changing - the most brutal lesson was the way her stepfather, the real father in her life, moved on after her mother died, and essentially left her an orphan. The heart-breaking scene with the horse represented the culmination of that betrayal. These are the messes that people leave for others to clean up when responsibility is shirked.

The tale is told a decade or so later - from a point of greater wisdom. But the wisdom Strayed gives to us is the time-honored secret (to paraphrase Churchill): Never, never, never, never give up.


Growing Up Amish: A Memoir
Growing Up Amish: A Memoir
by Ira Wagler
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.17
214 used & new from $0.01

3.0 out of 5 stars Doesn't give a good description of an Amish community or life, January 3, 2013
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As a native of Pennsylvania (but growing up culturally and temperamentally as far from the Amish as could be), I have always been fascinated by, and eager to learn about, this "people apart." "Growing up Amish" misses the mark. Focused on his own "issues" (not liking farming, the usual and universal conflicts with parents, etc.) Wagler is unable to place the struggles within the context and perspective of Amish life that even I am aware of. There are glimpses of people who might be worth meeting and knowing - the heroic sister-in-law who stands by Wagler's brother even after he becomes paraplegic and helps him build a successful farm; Wagler's mother; the Amish convert who tries to woo Wagler back - the book abounds with interesting people in the dim periphery. But Wagler is not able to describe his own life or his own community with conviction or self-awareness.

One of the most compelling issues of those who leave Amish life is the lack of education among them: Amish schools hold a rare exemption from universal education until age 16 and extend only to the 8th grade. Thus, those who leave the community have no high school education and have a dearth of modern skills. Boys and men generally have construction and farming expertise, but the women (who I guess are very few) are especially handicapped. I wish Wagler would have addressed this issue. (He received a GED and eventually graduated from college and law school.)

Another recent book presents a more compassionate and astute picture of another Anabaptist group, the Mennonites, who of course are not as strict or isolated as the Old Order Amish. "Mennonite in a Little Black Dress" (by Rhoda Janzen), about a woman who returns home after a failed marriage, and recognizes that the values she acquired while growing up, as well as the skills, were a gift of her heritage. Her lesson was to not throw out the baby with the bath water: Wagler isn't aware of the baby, or at least he can't describe it to the outsider.

Another similar excellent book is "The Book of Mormon Girl" (by Joanna Brooks), again, about a sect that is not as "apart" at the Amish. The author gives a very good sense of what it is like to grow up Mormon; she paints a faith group that is steeped in the traditions of family, history, service and community. But this failure to describe seems to plague many of these "growing up religious" memoirs. "Unorthodox" (by Deborah Feldman) describes the upbringing and ultimate rejection of faith and community by a woman who was raised in an enclave of Satmar Hasidim, who are as insular as the Amish. "Unorthodox" has the same problems as Wagler's book: a member of the community is unsuited for life within it, but she is incapable of describing the values and life that are at its core.


The Cursing Mommy's Book of Days: A Novel
The Cursing Mommy's Book of Days: A Novel
by Ian Frazier
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.17
179 used & new from $0.01

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Funny and Fun book, November 29, 2012
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When I first read the "Cursing Mommy" in the New Yorker, I was embarrassed that I found what was essentially whole pages of crude logorrhea to be so funny. No, Frazier is hilarious, not to mention clever. The Mommy is extreme - not only foul-mouthed, but alcoholic, overreacting, and underachieving - but she speaks truth to so many of the problems of the day: Slacking, ungrateful kids; clueless, self-absorbed husbands; philandering bosses; schools being taken over by cults; inane and useless self-help routines, all thrown into a mix of trenchant anti-Bush-Cheney-Scalia barbs. It all adds up to brilliance, and it all rings true. Unless you are a socially conservative ostrich who was born yesterday and believes all households with two opposite-sex parents plus kids couldn't possibly have a chink of strife or shame, you will laugh all the way through "Mommy." The one thing I couldn't figure out is: how could a man write this book?


Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behind
Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behind
by Richard Fortey
Edition: Hardcover
82 used & new from $4.00

5.0 out of 5 stars Life on Earth through the most modest and amazing organisms, November 29, 2012
Fortey holds the history of life on Earth in the palm of his hand. By drawing comparisons between existing organisms and plants and those preserved in fossils, he tells the story of evolution's successes and failures. Besides horseshoe crabs and velvet worms, meet the lungfish, the ginkgo tree, and the elusive tinamou, the most primitive bird alive, and know their struggle to persist - yes, thrive - through eons of time. He has full command of the subject both in the broad sweep and in the details. I appreciated his little asides on the current scientific literature suggesting that this or that consensus view might be wrong, or only partly correct (and thus signaling to the non-scientific reader that the body of science is ever-changing, always going forward by discussion and disagreement). The level of the book is about right: As a (physical) scientist myself I found it somewhat breezy (but I wasn't looking for technical writing), but the layperson should find it just right.

In truth, I rate this book a low 5, as the writing doesn't approach the luminous transcendence of that of nature writers such as Loren Eisley or even John J. Rowlands ("Cache Lake Country"). Fortey is a materialist (as most scientists are), showing wonder in nature as known solely through scientific inquiry. But I believe science cannot answer all questions; at the end of the day there is still mystery and awe in the realization that the whole is not the sum of the parts. The last two chapters pick up a bit on the "big themes", but Fortey also soft-pedals political issues, such as our own role as the cause of a current great extinction, and of climate change. That being said, "Horseshoe Crabs" represents the best in scientific writing in our generation.


Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety
Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety
by Daniel B. Smith
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.08
173 used & new from $0.01

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A realistic and honest description of anxiety, October 24, 2012
Daniel Smith brings to life the experiences of those who suffer from acute anxiety. It is in his detailed and almost humdrum descriptions of life's minor and major events - going away to school, his first love experience and his first job, arranging cans in a grocery store, looking out the window - that we can understand what it is to have this mental illness. The description of his interactions with mostly indifferent or incompetent mental health practitioners is particularly devastating.

Smith brings both the physical and mental to the forefront: the serious sweating, the incessant indecision and ruminating, and the constant second-guessing. His illness led to major difficulties with his first relationship and with his first job with benefits. Perhaps most important is his heartbreakingly realistic portrait of a mentally ill person who is so much better than he thinks. In that, he speaks for millions. He is a superb writer (okay, he's an English professor and he worked as a fact checker at the Atlantic). What Smith doesn't need to worry about is that he's surely a mensch with compassion and humor.


Everett Ruess: His Short Life, Mysterious Death, and Astonishing Afterlife
Everett Ruess: His Short Life, Mysterious Death, and Astonishing Afterlife
by Philip L. Fradkin
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $21.36
35 used & new from $5.84

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good and Original Book on this Subject, March 5, 2012
Familiar with the Everett Ruess story from Krakauer's "Into the Wild", I learned a lot more after the 2008-2009 discovery of bones near Bluff, Utah that were putatively those of Ruess but turned out to be those of a young Navajo man. I read "A Vagabond for Beauty" by the late W. L. Rusho, which is a collection of Ruess's letters, and "Finding Everett Ruess" (David Roberts). Fradkin's book is the best overall review of the case: it puts Ruess's journeys and life into the historical and social context, it contains material from interviews of many of the still-living principals, and it is concise in its description of the evidence surrounding the disappearance. There are a few interesting revelations, such as a plausible - but not ironclad - identification of the elusive Frances. The book is particularly good in focusing on Ruess's parents and brother and their reactions to the loss. Fradkin is the only author who seems to understand that Everett was really the second loss of a child for the Ruess family (their young daughter Christella died at six weeks). Fradkin gives a fairly evenhanded treatment of the disappearance itself, focusing on Ruess's possible bipolar disorder, although the bulk of the evidence still tilts toward Ruess being murdered. The Navajo tracker Dougeye, who was quite certain Ruess was murdered in Davis Gulch, was only mentioned in passing; the Roberts book goes into detail on Dougeye's expert analysis of the case. Fradkin's last chapter is a highly critical rendition of the recent excavation and misidentification of the young Navajo's remains near Bluff: Bad science followed by profit-driven journalism.


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