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Search tags: Biographies-and-Memoirs-Contemporarty
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review 2015-11-25 14:27
Eye-opening and highly readable biogrphy
Benazir Bhutto: Favored Daughter (Icons) - Brooke Allen

This short book packs a lot into its 151 pages of text, and doesn’t pull any punches in its chronicle of the life and family background of Benazir Bhutto, a fascinating and complex woman. It also tells the turbulent history of Pakistan, from its origins up to almost the present day, which is at least as interesting as Bhutto’s personal story.


Exceptionally charismatic, Bhutto has a mixed legacy that continues to inspire some, including Malala, the Pakistani  Nobel Peace Prize winning teenager who’s an activist for female education, but Bhutto was not free from the taint of corruption and wasn’t completely what I naively expected. Her family is still active in Pakistani politics, making this book especially relevant.


The author, Brooke Allen, was able to obtain personal insights from people who had been close to Bhutto, but she also uses what she terms the “foundational research”  of other writers and the book is heavily footnoted citing her sources. Eye-opening and highly readable.


I read an advanced review copy of this book supplied by the publisher. Review opinions are mine.

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review 2015-10-17 15:05
Entertaining and enlightening
My Life on the Road - Gloria Steinem

Reading this lively memoir of the vagabond life Gloria Steinem has led--first by necessity and then because she embraced it--made me want to hit the road myself in the hope that I could have even a fraction of her experiences. The varied places and people she’s encountered in her travels give her rich, interesting perspectives on the history and zeitgeist of the times she writes about, which extend from the later years of the Great Depression until today. It makes the book a fascinating, even inspiring combination of personal story and history that’s a lot of fun to read--and because this is Gloria Steinem, readers also get an enlightening front row seat for the burgeoning women’s movement of the 1960’s-70’s and its continuing development.


When she was a young child Steinem’s father ran a lakeside music venue in the summer, but once fall came he’d pack everyone in the car to spend the rest of the year driving around the country buying and then selling junk or antiques or whatever, earning enough of a profit to make it to the next town--an enterprise in which  the whole family participated. Steinem thought she longed for a permanent home, but when she reached adulthood that didn’t happen. After college Steinem got a 2-year fellowship to study in India, but when she showed up at the ashram of Vinoba Bhave, one of the leaders in the land reform movement inspired by Gandhi, almost everyone was gone. Caste riots had broken out in nearby, now cordoned off villages, so the ashram residents had formed teams to slip under police barriers and travel from village to village hoping to help contain further violence. One more team wanted to go out, but they needed a women so Steinem was drafted, her first experience of traditional talking circles and modern community activism.


Working as a journalist back in the US, Steinem was dismissed by some of her male colleagues as a token “pretty girl” which helped lead her to the women’s movement and a continued life of organizing, activism, and travel. If you are expecting something dour and humorless, that’s not what you’ll find in this book. Steinem comes across as warmhearted, eager to learn from the people around her, and open to new experiences, all of which makes her wonderful company.  I enjoyed learning more about mid-century politics and the growth of the women’s movement, but I also loved the personal glimpses she gives of people as diverse as Cherokee Nation chief Wilma Mankiller, who was a personal friend, and Frank Sinatra, who Steinem spent one awkward Thanksgiving dinner with--he didn’t talk much to anyone but he did let them watch while he put on an engineer’s hat and ran his toy trains around an elaborate track.

Steinem even works in interesting bits of older history, mentioning for instance that the American Constitution is partially modeled on the Iroquois Confederacy, but when Benjamin Franklin invited two Iroquois men to the Constitutional Convention to act as advisers, one of their first comments was something like--why aren’t there any women at this meeting? Good question.

Source: jaylia3.wordpress.com/2015/10/17/entertaining-and-enlightening
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review 2015-08-25 15:30
“Things looked different after she had looked at them”
Hannah Arendt: A Life in Dark Times (Icons) - Anne C. Heller

Short but deeply fascinating, this book about Hannah Arendt  covers both her life and the evolution of her thinking in less than 140 pages. It opens with the controversy surrounding her coverage of  the 1961 trial of Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann in Israel, and her pithy but divisive “banality of evil” observation, then cycles back to her turn of the century childhood in Prussia, where her highly educated, politically liberal, religiously agnostic family had established itself several generations previously after leaving czarist Russia.


Even as a child it was obvious Arendt possessed a prodigious intellect, but unsurprisingly that did not make her life easy. Her father died when she was seven and she had to flee Nazi Germany as a young woman, resettling first in Paris and later in the United States. Before leaving Germany she studied and had an affair with the Nazi involved philosopher Martin Heidegger, a relationship she had trouble renouncing even as she embraced her Jewish roots more and more avidly.


I was drawn right into this book. It was refreshing to read about someone devoted to the life of the mind rather than the pursuit of fame, political power, or wealth. Even though the book is not long it doesn’t feel slight because it plunges right into the heart of Arendt’s life and intellectual development. I have never read a book so copiously footnoted, all the author’s sources are cited right there in the text, which I appreciate but it did take some initial effort to not be distracted by them.


“Things looked different after she had looked at them . . . Thinking was her passion, and thinking for her was a moral activity.” Philosopher Hans Jonas on Hannah Arendt

Source: jaylia3.wordpress.com/2015/08/25/things-looked-different-after-she-had-looked-at-them
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review 2015-05-10 14:02
Westward ho! A fascinating blend of history, humor, travelogue, memoir, and social commentary
The Oregon Trail: An American Journey - Rinker Buck

This entertaining, often enthralling, mix of history, humor, travelogue, family memoir, and no holds barred social commentary reminds me of my favorite Bill Bryson books--especially A Walk in the Woods about Bryson’s (mis)adventures hiking the Appalachian Trail. When Rinker Buck discovered that large stretches of the Oregon Trail still exist, he had romantic visions of a back to basics journey across the western half of the continent and began obsessively and meticulously preparing for a mule-drawn covered wagon trip along the old pioneer route. Since he was divorced and his daughters were grown, why not? Rinker planned to go solo, but even replica wagons have breakdowns, so fortunately for both him and his readers Rinker’s handy, force of nature brother insisted on coming along too--a brusque, big-hearted, syntax challenged, mechanically gifted giant of a man who has some resemblance to Harry Potter’s Hagrid.


Rinker blends the fascinating if fraught history of the mass migration westward into the story of his own journey. Pioneer journals were his guides, and the sections devoted to their lively accounts of trail travel were some of my favorite parts of the book. Rinker also writes movingly about his father, an adventurous, family-centered man who inspired his trip. I found the chapter about the surprising (to me) importance role of mules in 18th and 19th century America--starting with George Washington as a savvy land speculating donkey importer and mule broker--utterly captivating, and it’s a good example of the atypical historical perspectives and insights that make this book so riveting.

But The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey is as much about the modern day West and its people as it is about the past, and as an Easterner I learned a lot--Rinker, his brother, and their mule team often spent their nights in open publicly maintained corrals where teenagers gather to hang out and practice rodeo skills, not something we encounter here in the Boston to Washington megalopolis. The writing about the actual trip is detailed but evocative, so I felt like I was watching the scenery and riding along in the covered wagon myself. I wasn’t quite so interested in the wagon maintenance aspects of their journey, but I’m sure those sections will delight some readers.

Source: jaylia3.booklikes.com/post/1162508/westward-ho-a-fascinating-blend-of-history-humor-travelogue-memoir-and-social-commentary
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review 2015-02-21 17:27
Dust Tracks on a Road
Dust Tracks on a Road - Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston approaches this moving memoir like a master storyteller, with wonderfully lyrical prose that reminded me a lot of her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. Loved it.


Source: jaylia3.booklikes.com/post/1115319/dust-tracks-on-a-road
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