February 1, 2009
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.
August 8, 2008
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.
January 7, 2008
Iris, a single young woman with relationship problems, discovers that she has a great aunt who has been locked away in a mental institution for 60 years. Esme Lennox is the great aunt and because the institution is shutting down Esme is handed over to the care of Iris, her one remaining, functional relative.
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell is a beautifully written, haunting story of family secrets, denial, tragedy and betrayal. As the story unfolds the author carries us further and further into psyches of Esme, broken but not destroyed, and her sister Kitty, who is still hanging on, though wrecked with Alzheimer's. Why was Esme shut away forever at age 16, never mentioned by her family again?
May 20, 2006
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.
July 6, 2005
If the Mexican Army attempted to infiltrate 1,000,000 soldiers per year into the United States and successfully placed 150,000 of them here, the citizens and Congress of the US would be in a unanimous uproar of outrage. Yet, 150,000 Mexicans, mostly young men, DO successfully enter this country each year. And the Mexican government does, in fact, spend 10s of millions of dollars on programs that encourage them to do so as well as stay here after they arrive.
Who Are We: The Challenges to America's National Identity by Samuel Huntington clearly frames this controversy among several critical issues facing the US. These choices will determine our country's course in dramatic ways over the coming decades and beyond. I can't recommend it strongly enough for any concerned citizen.
Many academics fail to maintain a clean distinction between the descriptive and the prescriptive in their writings, Huntington successfully avoids this classic trap. His point of view on the issues is fairly clear, but he does not let his own views contaminate a crisp analysis of the problems.
June 23, 2005
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.
June 20, 2005
If you like rolicking, picaresque novels, you will love Handling Sin. Written in the '80s(?), it remains one of my favorites.
A mild mannered insurance agent is sedately approaching middle age, living out his comfortable life in a small No. Carolina town. He receives news that his vagabond father has passed away, but to receive his inheritance he has to track down his father's trumpet, last seen in the possession of a young, attractive black woman who may or may not have been his father's mistress.
The hero rounds up his S. Panza-like sidekick and off they go on a madcap quest across the South. After many hilarious adventures they also absorb a few life lessons. Can't really describe many details without giving away a few surprises. So give it a try.