Monday, June 25, 2012

thoughts on: Guest of Honor

Guest of Honor: Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and the White House Dinner That Shocked a NationGuest of Honor: Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and the White House Dinner That Shocked a Nation by Deborah Davis

I must be drawn to this type of history writing - one event in an eventful life used to illustrate the character of those involved as well as the significance of that moment in time. Deborah Davis uses the White House dinner of Theodore Roosevelt and Booker T. Washington as the climax of her narrative. Although lost in history, this casual dinner in 1901 was so shocking to the South that it remained an issue for many years to come.

If she had only written of the dinner and its aftermath, Guest of Honor would have been a very interesting article for a history journal. Instead, Davis writes parallel biographies of the two great men, drawing similarities between the two. Although I thoroughly enjoyed reading about these two men, I felt that there was a bit too much effort made to parallel their lives. Losing a young first wife was not so rare in the late 19th century, nor has it ever been rare for a strong willed girl to become a trying adolescent. Coming back to these topics repeatedly, it seemed that Davis was implying a deeper connection between the men, one that was not supported in any way by the historical record.

However, the historical record itself is quite interesting, and Davis adeptly presented both men's views on the racial issues and tensions of their day. With Roosevelt, she looks at both his words and actions, the latter being far more revealing of his progressive and fair nature than the former. In writing of Booker T. Washington, she shows the philosophy behind his often-criticized efforts to teach former slaves self sufficiency and technical skills. Upon finishing Guest of Honor, I immediately added to my queue a biography of Booker T. Washington which Davis recommends.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

thoughts on: Breasts, a Natural and Unnatural History

Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural HistoryBreasts: A Natural and Unnatural History by Florence   Williams

Every year in my elementary school, there was a lesson about head lice, either a filmstrip or a weekly reader article, and, I would spend the entire lesson trying not to scratch my head at the thought of lice.  Florence Williams' book is like that.  Informative, interesting, even entertaining, but it made me itch. 

Breasts begins with the laughable evolutionary theories of why humans alone have breasts, all of which center on men liking them.  She gives us a peak into the world of breast implants - the history and the how-to and the why - and discusses how our obsession with how they look has distracted us from real scientific inquiry.  She says, "By insisting that breasts are sexually evolved and relegated to a sexual destiny, we have encouraged women not to value breast-feeding, and sadly, often not to value their normal, natural bodies.  Breasts have only slowly offered up their secrets, and we have been too distracted by their beauty to look very hard."

Williams goes on to interview the handful of scientists around the world who are interested in how breasts grow and function.  With them, she explores the anatomy of this unique organ throughout the lifespan, its primary function - feeding babies, and the threat of cancer.  This is fascinating stuff.  Our breasts are amazing, the only organ in our body that rewires itself when needed, as many times as needed.  However, it is because of this ability to change at a cellular level that they are so vulnerable.  Scientists are just beginning to understand them.

Throughout, Williams discusses research into the impact of our environment on our breasts.  It is this topic that made me itch.  Our exposure to environmental toxins influences every aspect of the development of our breasts, from when we get them to the contents of our milk to the cancer we fear.  Like a sponge, our breasts seem to store particles of everything they touch, including the pollutants in our food and air.  I wish the solution were as easy as replacing my plastic tupperware with glass, but the abundance of chemicals in our modern lives makes contact with these substances unavoidable. 

Williams realizes that.  She sees no easy answers, no quick solutions, but in writing this book, she has brought these issues to the general public, made us itch, and begun a conversation, and that is a good start.

Friday, June 15, 2012

thoughts on: Clara's War

Clara's War: A Young Girl's True Story of Miraculous Survival Under the NazisClara's War: A Young Girl's True Story of Miraculous Survival Under the Nazis by Clara Kramer

Clara's War, which is based on the diaries Clara Kramer kept as a teen, is more than a memoir of how she survived the Holocaust.  One of the fifty Jewish survivors from a Jewish community of 5,000 people in Zolkiew, Poland, Clara's book is a tribute to the family who hid eighteen people under their house while working with and housing Nazi soldiers.

Valentin and Julia Beck, and their teenaged daughter Ala, risked their lives every day of the eighteen months they lived in the former house of the Jewish family who, with their friends, were hiding in a dirt bunker their children had dug out in the crawl space.  Julia had been a maid to several of the families hiding, and one of the women was her closest friend.  Her husband, however, was known as an avowed anti-Semite, as well as an alcoholic and womanizer.  Both of the latter were true, but his dedication to the protection of the four families under his floor belied the former.  Again and again, he used and cultivated friendships with those in positions of power to deflect the rumors that he was hiding Jews.  The Beck's unwavering force of will kept her alive throughout the German occupation of Poland, and Clara states that she has lived her life to be worthy of the risks and sacrifices the Becks made for her.

She wrote, "When I was a child in our backyard watching Julia beat our rugs, I had no idea how strong her faith was.  I didn't know if it gave her courage to save us or if it gave her the strength to resist her fear.  What I witnessed every day in her was the remarkable sight of a woman doing what the saints and her savior did without hesitation and without compromise.  I knew that Julia would find her reward in heaven.  I hoped she would also find it on this earth."

Timothy, the Elephant's Child

I imagine that when Dumbo grew up, married, and started a family of his own, he named his first son Timothy, after his very first friend and mentor, Timothy Mouse.  After that, it became tradition, to have a Timothy in every family, to keep the memory alive.  So this is my Timothy, the elephant child.  

He is the first toy I designed for myself.  I couldn't find an elephant pattern I loved for my safari, so I used what I've learned knitting the other animals to make my own.  He knit up quickly until I got to the ears.  It took me three tries to get the look I wanted, and poor Timothy sat earless for a few weeks while I worked on a different project and thought about his ears.

I tried to keep accurate notes about making him, and would like to write the pattern up one day, but at the moment I am working on Secret Baby Gifts.  So it will have to wait.

I'm including a photo with Trixie, so you can get an idea of how big Timothy is.  He is bigger than a newborn baby.  I think he would be a great size to play with a toddler or preschool child.

thoughts on: Hard Times

Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great DepressionHard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression by Studs Terkel

In the 1960's, Studs Terkel asked Americans from all walks of life about their experiences during the Great Depression.  Grouped by type of experiences - labor movement recollections, for example - the individual recollections give a broader view of the issues people faced during the depression.  We hear the voices of day laborers as well as heads of industry, people whose fortunes fell and those whose rose.

It is this juxtaposition of views that makes Hard Times both vibrant and relevant, reminding us that every issue, every event is experienced through multiple lenses and it is not always the obvious one.  The circumstances we find ourselves in is only part of our story.  Much of what is experienced and remembered and believed comes from within us.

Monday, June 11, 2012

thoughts on: The Price of Privilege

The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy KidsThe Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids by Madeline Levine

A friend asked me to read this book, so I did.  If it had not been for her wanting to discuss it, I would never have picked it up, much less done any more than a quick skim.

Levine begins by describing a mental health "epidemic" among affluent teens, arguing that mental health disorders in these children of privilege and power - the future powerful of our society - has an impact on society at large, and should be addressed as a public health issue.  Then she writes a parenting book.  Her parenting advise is mostly sound (with a few notable exceptions -  I don't agree that drug usage should be considered a normal, healthy part of development), but it is just a parenting book.  She never addresses this epidemic as a public health issue.

Although I liked what she had to say about parenting in general, and thought her writing style was encouraging, I found that not being her target audience made the book a tedious read.  I kept wondering when she was going to get back to the public health discussion, because, frankly, I could not see why anyone in this highly competitive affluent class of parents would care in the least what I think of their parenting or how I could help their children.  Since she did not return to that angle, I assume she doesn't either.

Considering how limited the audience for this book is, I can't think of anyone to whom I would recommend this.  I found Leonard Sax's books Girls on the Edge and Boys Adrift covered similar issues in a way more meaningful to a broader group of parents and kids.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

thoughts on: Unbroken

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and RedemptionUnbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

In a book describing the horrific treatments of American POWs held by Japan, the most startling realization it holds is: why do we so quickly forget? I do not mean, why do we not hold a grudge longer. I mean, why do we forget that men have endured horrors beyond our imaginings? Why are we so unwilling to hear and believe the stories of our veterans, and remember them.

Like Holocaust memoirs, Unbroken takes us to the point where a person has been stripped of every thing possible. Even the flesh on their bones has been starved away. They are left with nothing except what they can muster from within their souls. We see both the very best and the very worst of mankind, and we ponder our own hearts, our own untested strength, in light of it.

Zamperini was one of our best. In his story, we recognize, as he did, both the sheer will to survive, and the divine at work in his life. The former may have been sufficient for his physical survival, but not for his ultimate healing.

Laura Hillenbrand deserves every bit of praise she has received for Unbroken. A vivid storyteller, she interweaves background on the state of aviation without interrupting the narrative flow. She describes the living terror of being a POW without overwhelming the reader with overly graphic details. She treats her subjects with the dignity which was deprived of them by their captors.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

thoughts on: Our Supreme Task

Our Supreme Task: How Winston Churchill's Iron Curtain Speech Defined the Cold War AllianceOur Supreme Task: How Winston Churchill's Iron Curtain Speech Defined the Cold War Alliance by Philip  White

How did one of the most important speeches of Churchill's career come to be delivered at a small college in Missouri?  Philip White answers this, and shows us the people involved in this landmark event.  In doing so, Our Supreme Task is part history, part human interest story, as he alternates between Winston Churchill's search for a platform to warn the world of the coming perils of Stalinist Russian expansion, and the bold president of Fulton College who invited the world's most preeminent statesman to speak at his school.

Following the political defeat that stunned many, Churchill continued to look for ways to alert the world to the inherit threat to democracy he saw in communist totalitarianism.  Much like his early years of speaking out against the rise of Hitler, his was a voice that refused to be silenced.  Here we see Churchill as he works to unite England and America on a diplomatic course to stand firm in their opposition to Russia, which was already annexing neighboring nations and forcibly installing puppet governments.  To a war weary world, his words were not welcome, but they came to both define the cold war and to influence foreign policy for decades to come.