The Sky Isn’t Visible from Here – Felicia Sullivan

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I can imagine, that if you worked on Wall St. or in high tech, in some high profile, well-paid job, and your friends summered in the Hamptons and settled in Connecticut suburbs, and you found yourself losing friends, losing your grip, tormented by demons that you couldn’t even name, because to you they seemed like nothing compared to the demons you dealt with growing up, I can imagine that like Felicia Sullivan, the author of The Sky Isn’t Visible from Here: Scenes from a Life, that you too would be compelled to write, to somehow make sense of it all.

I sat down to read this book one night and couldn’t put it down until I finished it at 2 in the morning. No child should have to endure what Felicia grew up with in an environment of neglect, sexual abuse, and drug addiction. We all want our children to be protected, to be surrounded by love and stability. What Felicia survived, was anything but that.

This is a hard book to read, emotionally. Those of us in relatively safe worlds know that people and children exist this way in our own cities, somewhere we know this, in the back of our minds. But most people with lives like this never make it out, and if they do, rarely do they have the skill of writing or gift of narrative to tell such a story to the wider world. That Felicia got herself out, put herself through school, built herself a life, is a testament to her intelligence and will. That she battles with her own pull toward addictive, self-destructive behavior is no surprise, given the broken craziness of her childhood.

I came away from this book sad for all of the children who are growing up this way, who will never get out, sad for Felicia’s mother who probably believes she did the best job parenting she could given that her own mother would lock her in a bathroom for days at a time, and in awe of Felicia for the courage it has taken, and still takes, to lead her life.

Links:
FeliciaSullivan.com

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers – Mary Roach

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Macabre. Gross. Funny, in a twisted, fascinating way. What does happen to our bodies once we are dead and gone? Ashes to ashes and dust to dust, eventually and in most cases, unless you’ve donated your body to science and then the process is either sped up, as it is dipped in a tub of lye, or delayed indefinitely through plastination. In Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, author Mary Roach takes us on a wild romp through history and science, describing in unsettling detail how cadavers have been used, and are used, in medical research. Although the book is weirdly entertaining, given the subject matter, Roach is always respectful of the bodies, and the people who have donated them.

“The human head is of the same approximate size and weight as a roaster chicken. I have never before had occasion to make the comparison, for never before today have I seen a head in a roasting pan. But here are forty of them, one per pan, resting face-up on what looks to be a small pet-food bowl. The heads are for plastic surgeons, two per head, to practice on. I’m observing a facial anatomy and face-lift refresher course, sponsored by a southern university medical center and led by a half-dozen of America’s most sought-after-face-lifters. The heads have been put in roasting pans – which are of the disposable aluminum variety – for the same reason that chickens are put in roasting pans: to catch the drippings. Surgery, even surgery upon the dead, is a tidy, orderly affair.”

In the chapter entitled “Crimes of Anatomy”, Roach takes us back before the time where there was a legal process in place to donate one’s body to science. In the early 1800s teachers of anatomy had to resort to other means of acquiring bodies on which to practice. Body snatching from recently dug graves was the more usual method, and there was a vigorous trade in the practice. The problem was that nobody wanted to be dissected. The common view of life after death was of the whole body making its way to heaven. Dissection was something only done to the bodies of executed mass murderers.

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Salt: A World History – Mark Kurlansky

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Who would have thought that something as unassuming as salt could provide the basis for such a fascinating tour through time? In Salt: A World History author Mark Kurlansky gives us a history of the world, from the perspective of the salt trade. Although we take our table salt completely for granted these days, in the not so distant past the ability to access salt was critical for a society’s survival. The main use was for preserving food – cod, herring, cabbage, meat. Those countries who had an ample supply of salt could equip armies, live through winters, and engage in the profitable trade of food that would otherwise spoil without salt. Empires have been built, massive fortunes have been made and lost, all to do with controlling the salt trade. Even in nature, where there are salt licks, there are animals, taking in this simple compound so necessary for physical survival.

Kurlansky starts us off in China four thousand years ago where the act of drilling was first invented to access brine from salt wells, and takes us up all the way to the present with the Morton and Cargill companies dominating salt production worldwide. The book is extremely well researched and filled with interesting detail. A must read for any lover of history or of food.

Freakonomics – Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

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In Freakonomics, authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner turn a spotlight on to some touchy areas – abortion, crack dealers, parenting, the KKK, cheating by school teachers, guns in homes. They present a view that if you remove the lens of morality and how things “should be”, many phenomena can be explained through basic economic principles. I couldn’t agree more. Yet the book is in a word, lightweight. A little over 200 hundred pages and presented in large, easy-to-read print, Freakonomics can be read in a couple of hours. And if you understand anything about economics that you could pick up in a college survey class, you won’t be that surprised by their analysis. I can only think that the reason this book has been on the NYT best seller list is because most people don’t understand the basic tenets of economics.

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On the Water – Nathaniel Stone

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On the Water: Discovering America in a Row Boat – In the spring of 1999, Nat Stone set out in a row boat from near the Brooklyn Bridge in Manhattan to row his way around the Eastern half of the United States – up the Hudson through the Erie Canal, down the Alleggheny and then the Mississippi, around Florida, and back up to Brooklyn and up the coast of Maine. The trip was motivated by a lifelong love of the water and boats, and by the need to fulfill a dream of following the route of Howard Blackburn, a nineteenth-century Gloucester fisherman. (Blackburn had lost his fingers after the froze to his oars while he rowed for 5 days straight to come in from the sea in a storm. Blackburn subsequently taught himself how to sail and rigged a boat that took him up the Hudson, down the Mississippi, and around Florida.) Nat’s trip included one 9 mile stretch of portage, in which, hooked up to a harness, Nat pulled the boat over land. The trip was also broken up into two parts. The first part took Nat all the way down to the point that the Mississippi empties into the sea, begun in April 1999 and completed in August 1999. To complete the ocean journey Nat would need a boat that wouldn’t so easily capsize in ocean swells. He returned to the Bayou in January 2000 and picked up his journey again.

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Reading Lolita in Tehran – Azar Nafisi

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In Tehran, Iran, for two years during the late 1990s, literature professor Azar Nafisi conducted a secret class in her home for 7 women students. The class was about literature and read from works of Nabokov, Henry James, Fitzgerald, Jane Austin, and others. Reading Lolita in Tehran is professor Nafisi’s memoir of those years and those that came before, as Nafisi struggled to teach literature whose very characters and stories more often than not offended the Islamic authorities. Reading Lolita alternates between being a social history of modern Iran and the challenges for women to retain their dignity in a repressive Islamic state, and an inquiry into the power of fiction to open our eyes and give our lives meaning. Nafisi follows the lives of her students – their stories, fears, struggles, and triumphs – as each comes to terms with their lives and roles in the world. Ultimately many, like Nafisi, will choose to leave Iran, rather to continue to live in a culture where so much of their lives are proscribed.

Reading Lolita in Tehran is beautifully written. Anyone who cherishes literature will not only appreciate the subject matter, but the lyrical manner in which it is written. Highly recommended.