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review 2017-09-17 03:37
'A LIFE WELL LIVED' = A NICE BOOK TO READ
A Life Well Lived - Ralph Sausmarez Carey

As stated on the back cover, "[t]his book is a wonderful compilation of memories, stories, letters, newspaper articles and" [photos] about the life of Ralph Sausmarez Carey (1898-1976). 

Carey, a Canadian from Winnipeg, joined the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) in November 1917 and received pilot training in Canada, the U.S., and Britain. He went on to serve as a fighter pilot in France with No. 73 Squadron, Royal Air Force (RAF), flying Sopwith Camel fighters over the Western Front in the latter stages of the First World War in 1918. Upon returning to Canada in May 1919, he studied at the University of Manitoba, where he earned a B.A. degree. He then went on to earn a law degree and briefly practiced law in the 1920s. 

The bulk of Carey's career would be with the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC), a major retail establishment where he worked his way into the upper ranks of management. Aside from his service with the Canadian Army as an administrative officer in Ottawa during the Second World War, he spent 36 years with HBC, retiring in 1965. 

What makes this book truly engaging to the reader are: a transcription of Carey's First World War experiences (which he had recorded on tape; his wife preserved it for their children); the personal recollections of Carey's children, former colleagues, relatives, and friends which bring a wider human dimension to the man that was Ralph Sausmarez Carey; and --- Chapter 5, which contains Carey's background and the backgrounds of his parents and siblings. 

All in all, "A LIFE WELL LIVED" is a nice book to read.
 

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review 2017-09-12 03:51
A TRIBUTE TO A REMARKABLE WOMAN WHOSE CONTRIBUTIONS TO U.S. HISTORY HAVE BEEN UNSUNG FOR FAR TOO LONG
The Gatekeeper: Missy LeHand, FDR, and the Untold Story of the Partnership That Defined a Presidency - Kathryn Smith

"THE GATEKEEPER" is a book that brings back to life a singularly remarkable woman whose vital contributions to the administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) - both professional and private - deserve to be more widely known. 

Marguerite "Missy" LeHand came from humble origins in Massachusetts to work for FDR in August 1920 as his private secretary. At that time, he was the vice presidential running mate of Ohio Governor James Cox, who was running for the Presidency against the Republican candidate, Senator Warren G. Harding of Ohio. Though the Cox-Roosevelt ticket went down resoundingly to defeat in November 1920, "Missy" would go on to work faithfully for FDR for the next 20 years, helping him (along with those persons - e.g. Louis Howe, a highly skilled political strategist who had been a supporter of FDR from the time he won election to the NY State Senate in 1910, and FDR's wife Eleanor, who would later form FDR's inner circle in the White House) thru the personal crisis caused by the polio that left him unable to walk for the rest of his life, to the slow and steady upward path to a political resurrection that led to FDR being elected Governor of New York in 1928, and 4 years later, elected President of the United States. 

Though Missy LeHand's official position in the Roosevelt White House was personal secretary, she was much more than that. In many respects, she can be considered as the first woman presidential chief of staff. Indeed, Missy enjoyed FDR's complete trust and commanded his respect. She had a room in the White House near the President and played a vital role in the shaping of many of FDR's policies and initiatives. So much so that "if you wanted access to Franklin, you had to go through Missy." By virtue of their deeply close personal relationship (exactly how close is unclear to this day), "[a]s one of his most trusted advisors, Missy had a unique perspective on the president that no one else could claim, and she was deeply admired and respected by Eleanor and the Roosevelt children." 

Sadly, this unique working relationship between FDR and Missy LeHand was not to last. The reasons for that I leave for the reader of this review to discover by reading this fantastic, well-written and researched book.
 

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text 2017-08-19 02:11
So I kinda wanna read this
Romantic Violence: Memoirs of an American Skinhead - Christian Picciolini

Another biography about a neo-nazi who changed his life.   Much like the one I started before, in this one, he helps others he once acted out violently against - although his tack is to help by helping those who are neo-nazis. 

 

And here's the thing: nazis are evil.   Not necessarily unredeemable.   Nazism often preys on those who have been abused or neglected, especially nowadays.   Some are flat out racists and anti-semiites who want to see all the non-white races burn.   Some aren't.   Some are victims, usually drawn in as children.   (Adults grooming children to be nazis is vile.   in fact, if you're an adult and then you choose nazism, unredeemable.   If you're a child, if you're preyed upon and/or groomed, there's a chance if someone will give it to you.)

 

This author reaches out to others who have been victimized by nazism.   His group is called Life After Hate and he does things like taking ex-neo-nazis to get their swastika tattoos removed and helping them by finding them jobs.   

 

I fucking hate nazis, no doubt.   If you're an adult and you call yourself a nazi, I believe you are evil.   It's heartbreaking to hear about kids being groomed by this. 

 

And I applaud people who help those victims.  I just... can't.   There's too much tied up inside me, and I can't.   I have a hard time with this because he became an adult who was a nazi, and then things changed for him.   But it was an internal change, and it was because he was groomed.  I believe neo-nazis can be redeemed, but until they denounce nazism, punch them all where it will hurt most.   Face, head, crotch, whatever, punch 'em all. 

 

And I can't really make both these ideas work in my head.  I feel like this book might help, but I don't know if I wanna sympathize with a neo-nazi either.

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review 2017-08-17 22:23
No One Cares About Crazy People by Ron Powers
No One Cares About Crazy People: The Chaos and Heartbreak of Mental Health in America - Ron Powers

This is a deeply emotional book about an important topic, and it seems to have found a large audience (judging by the number of holds at my local library if not the number of ratings on Goodreads). It’s a great idea, alternating between nonfiction chapters about the nature and history of mental illness and a memoir of the author’s family, including two sons with schizophrenia. And as a journalist, the author has an engaging writing style that kept me wanting to read on. It is marred, however, by odd choices in structure and focus. In the end, there is far less about mental illness in it than I expected, and the author’s major policy proposal involves disempowering the very people to whom he claims he wants to give a voice.

The larger part of this book is the nonfiction, much of which is history. The author writes a bit about the spiritual roles often held in traditional societies by people who would today be defined as mentally ill, before discussing the history of asylums (they seem to have started out somewhere between prisons and zoos, to be later reformed in the era of Dorothea Dix and then deteriorate again). And other low points: eugenics (Hitler was all about wiping out mental illness through murder, but the U.S. pioneered forced sterilizations), lobotomies (shudder), and deinstitutionalization (the U.S. closed most of its asylums in the 1960s, resulting in many of the mentally ill winding up on the streets or incarcerated). For no reason I could discern, the chapter about the aftermath of WWII comes after the deinstitutionalization chapter, but it’s otherwise roughly chronological.

Powers’s writing style is engaging, and there is useful information here for those who don’t know much about the topic, but the nonfiction portions could have been much better. When the subject is science – what is schizophrenia, or the link between mental illness and creativity – there’s little actual science and lots of authorial speculation; Powers spends more time detailing debunked theories with emotional appeal for him than laying out the facts. When the subject is history, he has a tendency to go off on tangents at best loosely related to the topic of the book: the eugenics chapter goes into detail on how Darwin came to travel on the Beagle, but neglects to mention that forced sterilization went on in the U.S. until the 1970s.

The chapter on antipsychotics is particularly off-base. I expected this chapter to answer such questions as: how effective are antipsychotics? What is it like to be on them? How have these drugs changed in the sixty-odd years since they first became available? What are their disadvantages? Instead we get a history of the development of the precursors to the first antipsychotic drugs, including biographical details of involved scientists, and then a long catalogue of misdeeds by drug companies, often not related to psychoactive drugs at all. There’s even a discussion of the intricacies of patent law that cause medication to be expensive in the U.S. in the first place, and mention of Bernie Sanders bussing seniors up to Canada to buy cheaper meds. As a piece of journalism it’s fine, but that isn’t why I picked up this book.

The memoir portion is equally marked by odd choices of focus. Three-quarters of it takes place before either of the author’s sons begins showing signs of schizophrenia. I understand the author’s desire to focus on the happy events in their lives, and even his drive to include supportive emails he sent his kids over the years. Perhaps one of his goals was to get readers invested in Dean and Kevin as people rather than seeing them as representatives of an illness. But a good writer could have done that while focusing on the years when they were actually sick (they’re still people, which is supposed to be the author’s point, and they’re hardly psychotic all the time). And this structure winds up giving the impression that life ends with schizophrenia, that everything worth telling in his sons’ lives happened beforehand – even though one of them is alive and apparently doing well.

Again, there’s a lot of authorial speculation and tangents here. He theorizes that his older son, Dean, was moody and withdrawn as a teenager because he was in the early stages of the disease, never mind that Dean’s first psychotic episode seems to have come around age 30. He discusses at length the social and judicial consequences of a car accident when Dean was 17, during which it becomes clear that he has a bone to pick with the other teenager’s family (who previously wrote their own book). Dean’s own opinions are noticeably absent. The author will mention that he never asked how Dean felt about a particular event, or doesn’t know some fact from Dean’s life, leaving me wondering why he didn’t just walk downstairs and ask. Memoirists generally have living, non-estranged family members read their manuscripts and share their memory of events, which could only have improved this book.

Finally, though there’s little discussion of specific policy proposals, Powers advocates throughout the book for parents having increased authority to force treatment on their unwilling adult children. Of course, early diagnosis and treatment is extremely important to health outcomes, and it was clearly agonizing for Powers and his wife to watch Kevin go off his meds, insisting that he’d gotten better. But having recently read a horrifying account of involuntary commitment in another memoir, I’m hesitant to say we should do this more, and concerned by the author’s pooh-poohing of civil liberties concerns. A basic tenet of a free society is that adults get to make their own life decisions, even if their judgment is terrible, as long as they abide by the law. If someone is incompetent, the court can appoint a guardian. Powers apparently believes this option is insufficient because there can be delay (in which case the delay is the problem) and, bafflingly, because this is “not a medical hearing, with psychiatrists, but a judicial hearing, with a judge and lawyers.” Um, yes, this is how government works; it’s called due process of law and why courts exist. There’s nothing stopping psychiatrists from testifying in them.

At any rate, the author doesn’t seem to have thought this proposal through. Does he believe in involuntary treatment only during episodes of acute psychosis, or indefinitely once someone has a diagnosis? His experiences make it seem like the latter. In which case, what diagnoses are sufficient? How long does someone have to be stable to get their rights back? Does he think parents should have this power for life, or only while their children are financially dependent young adults? How would he prevent situations like Rosemary Kennedy's, where less conscientious parents choose a treatment that destroys their child in an attempt to make her easier to manage? If the ill person is married, does the spouse get to dictate treatment? Has he considered the ways mental illness already leaves people vulnerable to domestic violence (“you’re crazy, so no one will believe you”)? There's a long history of inconvenient women forced into mental institutions, because people given power over others don't always exercise it well. It doesn’t appear the author has considered the implications of his ideas beyond his own pain, and while his experiences are a valid consideration, the inquiry can’t stop there.

 

So in the end, while there is some good journalistic writing here and I found the book more engaging than a 2-star rating implies, it falls short of the author’s stated goals. He writes in the introduction that he wants reading the book to hurt, and he wants to give a voice to people with mental illness. The book includes a few tragic stories taken from the news, dealing with police shootings and suicide in prison, and certainly his son’s suicide is one of the most tragic events a family can experience. But far more page time is spent on Powers family vacations and why the author hates Thomas Szasz. And I’m confused as to how he believes he’s given anyone a voice when there’s no indication he interviewed anyone with mental illness for the book; even his own surviving son appears to have had no involvement. Raising awareness is good, but this book is too much of the author’s feelings and too little of anything else. What a wasted opportunity.

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review 2017-08-16 19:33
The House at Sugar Beach by Helene Cooper
The House at Sugar Beach - Helene Cooper

I loved reading this book. It’s a memoir of the author’s privileged childhood in Liberia, the early days of civil war there and her family’s flight, and her journey of building a life in another country and ultimately coming to terms with her homeland.

Helene Cooper is an award-winning journalist, and you can see that clearly in her writing, which is compelling, informative, and relatable. She builds scenes from her childhood in an almost novelistic way, and explores the dynamics of her complicated family with depth and honesty. While she was born to a Liberian dynasty (descended from the first free blacks who arrived from the U.S. to build a colony), there’s an ever-present reminder of her privilege in her best friend, a poor native Liberian girl her parents adopt to be her playmate. The divergence between the lives of these two as they grow older tells you a lot about Liberia (and the world). Cooper is also able to tell a personal, gripping story about the war, in which her family does not escape violence. And she includes a few helpful chapters detailing her family history and the early history of Liberia. While the portion of the book dealing with her life outside Liberia is much shorter, it’s still an interesting look at the family members’ relative assimilation and race relations in the U.S.

But it isn’t all heavy stuff. There’s quite a bit of humor and fun in the book, especially as the author remembers her childhood and teenage years. She also seems enthusiastic about explaining Liberian culture and Liberian English to those unfamiliar with it, adding a lot of flavor to the story.

In fact, perhaps neither of my two reservations about the book is fairly attributed to the author. One is that it has more than its share of copyediting mistakes. The other is that, despite the history included, I never understood how the relatively peaceful country in which Cooper grew up spawned one of Africa’s most brutal civil wars, with all the atrocities she describes. I’m sure that to the teenaged Helene Cooper this made just as little sense; but as a veteran foreign correspondent who rode along for the invasion of Iraq, she probably has some insight into what makes wars different from one another. I would have appreciated the level of research about the war that she clearly put into the colony’s early years, though as a memoir the book succeeds regardless.

Overall, this is a very well-told story featuring distinct, complicated personalities, from a self-aware and thoughtful writer with fascinating life experiences. It’s also a great way to learn about a corner of the world that most people know little about. I would definitely recommend this one.

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