Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Buddha in the Attic

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka is a short (129 pages) beautifully written delight of a book. It is not a narrative story in the traditional sense as there is very little dialogue, but the story comes through nicely.

The story line deals with picture brides. These are women who traveled from Japan to San Francisco to marry Japanese men who were already working in the United States. These women came from small towns, farms, big cities. They were sent by families who could not afford to keep them, some came seeking adventure, some escaping or hiding from their past. Their lives are traced from their hopefulness at a fresh start and the excitement of being chosen, through the long, exhausting boat ride across the Pacific to their arrival in San Francisco and the reality of their new lives.

The book describes every aspect of their lives. Love found and lost, hopes realized and dashed, children and the trials of everyday life in a new country. The book ends with the start of war. Chronicling their experiences in a not quite heartbreaking way.

The book is divided into 8 sections, each one more beautifully written that the previous one. Done in an "incantatory" style the book really is more a poem than a narrative. Wonderfully written this book is one of the best I have read in a long time.

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Friday, February 24, 2012

Three New Guitarist Memoirs

I'm a fan of music biographies so I recently took a chance to get caught up on 3 new autobiographies by rock guitarists. Each one offers its own pleasures if you are a fan of that particular guitarist.

Tony Iommi was a founder of Black Sabbath and he is also the only member who has survived through every iteration of the band. Unlike the biography of his more famous bandmate Ozzy Osbourne, whose I Am Ozzy from a year ago wandered off into tales of reality television and rehab, Iommi's biography pretty much sticks to the music. He grew up working class English and was able to develop his unique sound after he lost two fingertips in an industrial accident. Using homemade leather thimbles and loosening the strings of his guitar, he was not only able to thrive as a guitarist but as a side-effect created his own heavy signature.

Much of the book is stories of recording and touring, as well as meeting with various rock and roll idols. Anyone but the most dedicated Black Sabbath fans might find themselves dozing off in later parts of the book, as Iommi continues on with versions of Black Sabbath (later reuniting with Ozzy and the others) but certainly the first half of the book, detailing the original Black Sabbath years are lively. Despite consistently being named as one of the most influential heavy metal guitarists, Iommi comes off as humble and likeable. His recent diagnosis of lymphoma might add another unfortunate chapter.

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Perhaps as equally influential a guitarist is Ace Frehley of KISS, whose No Regrets is a raucous look at a rock star's life in one of the biggest rock bands of all time. Frehley was hired on by KISS (not yet known as KISS at the time) whose professionalism and work ethic was already intact. Gene Simmons seems like the driver of the band and besides Frehley he is the most vivid character in this book. Simmons has always come across as someone for whom selling product was more important than making music, and Frehley does nothing to dispel this idea. But Ace also seems to admire Simmons' professionalism and points out his many insecurities and eccentricities along the way. Peter Criss was probably Frehley's best friend in the band, and we get details of their misadventures, while Paul Stanley remains an enigma.

The first half of the book details Frehley's attempts to deal with sudden massive stardom and the churn of touring while finding his literal "voice" in the band. He was generally acknowledged as having produced the best of the band's 4 solo albums in the 1970s while also displaying a nasty drug and alcohol addiction, so Frehley's decision to leave the band must have surprised no one. The book then covers his attempts to find sobriety while bouncing between a solo career and a reuinted KISS. Along the way we get debauchery, electrocution and a discussion of how "live" KISS Alive! really was. A timeline of car crashes is all that was missing!

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Finally, Nile Rodgers, a co-founder of Chic and later a hit producer for the likes of David Bowie, Madonna and Duran Duran has his say in Le Freak. The book details Rodgers' turbulent childhood, growing up with a junkie mother and stepfather, while seeing his real father succumb to drugs as well. He details a youth hanging out at parties filled with heroin users as well as various attempts to escape this life by moving with his family from New York to Southern California and back. The book is filled with many colorful stories of growing up within beatnik/hippie scenes.

Luckily Rodgers discovered guitar along the way and was able to come up with his unique funky chicken scratch style. He founded Chic with bassist Bernard Edwards, the concept behind the band being their faceless professionalism. They never truly had a "frontman" but instead would bring in a rotating group of singers. Their meteoric rise in the disco scene (and subsequent fall when disco fell out of fashion) paved the way for Rodgers' career as a producer (and a nasty cocaine and alcohol addiction as well). We get some vivid stories of producing David Bowie's Let's Dance, Diana Ross's Diana and Madonna's Like a Virgin. I only wish he had provided more musical anecdotes along the way.

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Here are the aforementioned guitarists in action:

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

You Know When The Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon

This is a powerful little book that has kept me thinking.

Written by an army wife while her husband was stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, the author skillfully and compellingly brings the reader in to the lives of army families. Never before had I understood the role of the wives left behind when their husbands are stationed in war zones.

Told in short chapters, each story brings the reader into the life of an army wife, and into her home as she tries to manage her life and family with her husband in peril.  The social support the army offers these women, and the women offer each other serves as backdrop.

Not maudlin or depressing, but incredibly evocative.

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Friday, February 17, 2012

The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise

The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise, by Julia Stuart, combines the comic and the serious in an original and entertaining plot. Set at the Tower of London, the story focuses on one of the Tower's official guardians (Beefeaters) and his wife, Hebe. Surrounding them are colorful characters: their 181 year old pet tortoise, Mrs. Cook; Ruby Dore, bar manager at the Tower's Rack and Ruin pub; Rev. Septimus Drew, the Tower's Anglican priest and writer of erotica; and Valerie Jennings, Hebe's good friend and office mate.

Hebe and Valerie work in the London Underground's Department of Lost Things. They resemble social workers in their commitment to unite people with their lost belongings. This is not an average depository. It contains unique findings such as a safe, an urn, sixteen jars of preserved ginger, multiple sets of false teeth, and a "life-size inflatable doll...which no one had yet dared to claim."

In addition, the queen has decided that the gifts other countries have given her in the form of exotic animals should be moved from the London Zoo to the Tower. There is historical precedent for this. Balthazar Jones is put in charge of the animals, all of whom have personalities of their own.

Aside from the lives of these colorful characters, sightings of ghosts of former Tower prisoners, and many historical facts surrounding English history, the book centers on the marriage of Balthazar and Hebe. Once full of passion and mutual admiration, it is now one of despair after the death of their eleven-year-old son. The couple grieves separately, and silence takes the place of what was once joyful banter. Julia Stuart treats their plight with great respect, and the comic aspects of the book do not disparage their tragedy.

The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise is a delightful book--a perfect vacation read. It is light without being silly, and the author includes just enough English history for the book to be instructive.

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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Typist by Michael Knight

I really enjoyed this little book.

The main character is a young man named Van, who joins the army in 1944.  Because he is a skilled typist, he finds himself attached to General Mac Arthur's unit in Tokyo as one of the many typists who work to process the reams of orders the General generates. The book gives the reader insight in to the enlisted men who served in the Pacific Theatre, as well as their various extra curricular activities.

Spare well paced, a very enjoyable 185 pages!

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Friday, February 10, 2012

I Married You for Happiness

I married you for happiness is a brief and complex work combining happiness and grief. It centers in the bedroom shared by Nina and Philip. "His hand is growing cold; still she holds it." We spend 24 hours with Nina as she grieves at the sudden death of her husband after 43 years of marriage. It is a poignant goodbye, full of memories of the past.

Although there are many sad moments, there is much sweetness in the memories. There is also much of art (Nina is an artist) and of mathematics (Philip is a mathematician). All is told in brief sentences, brief paragraphs, which create a clear, crisp sense of place, of time, of Nina, Phillip, their daughter Louise, of the other people in their lives. The ending of the book is exquisite and encapsulates the entire work, which is a simple, yet elegant tribute to the complexities of a marriage.

Lily Tuck is the winner of the National Book Award in 2004 for The News from Paraguay.

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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner: A Family Memoir

Phobia, love, coming of age, and a vacuum cleaner--they are all elements of this delightful book by Meir Shalev. My Russian Grandmother and her American Vacuum Cleaner highlights the early history of Zionism in Israel and gives us an intimate glimpse into the background of one of Israel's most beloved writers. He is best known in this country for his book, A Pigeon and a Boy.

Grandma Tonia came to what was then Palestine in 1923 when she was just 18. Her future husband, Aharon, was the widower of her late sister. He was fourteen years her senior and the father of two young boys. Shalev's mother, perhaps in an attempt to understand and even forgive her, relates:

She arrived from Russia, ...a young woman with her hair in braids and wearing a high school girl's uniform,...and she came to the valley, to the dust and dirt and hard work and mud...She came here and discovered that all the promises of property owned by her father were untrue, that Grandpa Aharon, who had many virtues and talents, was no great farmer, and she sank into a life of labor and deprivation. And yet, she made up her mind not to be broken, not to return to Russia or desert to America or run off to Tel Aviv. We didn't have an easy time of it with her, but the entire family has her to thank for this farm. (p. 13)

In today's psychology-oriented society, Grandma Tonia would have been diagnosed as having an obsessive-compulsive disorder. And although Freud had presented his theories on this malady in the 1920's, there would have been little time for treatment for a moshavnik of that period--let alone for the formidable Tonia. A mother of five young children, not counting her two stepsons, she invariably turned her frustrations on the one tangible item of which there was plenty--dirt.

Grampa Aharon, unlike Grandma Tonia, was "inclined toward things other than agriculture (p. 13)." He wrote reports and articles for The Young Laborer" and edited a satirical bulletin for the moshav called, The Mosquito. He wrote riotously funny skits that were performed in the village hall after their individual Seders. Shalev muses that has he gone to Los Angeles like his brother, Yeshayahu, he might have become a successful screen writer.

Great Uncle Yeshayahu became a successful businessman in America. Aharon deeply resented his brother, calling him a "double traitor" for embracing Capitalism over Zionism and Socialism. This wealthy brother eventually sent the gift of a giant General Electric vacuum cleaner to Grandma Tonia--a gift that gained mythical importance in family lore.

My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner is a book that spans three generations of a family and of a country. It is a very human look at a renowned writer and a loving tribute to his colorful grandmother. Reading this book was sheer pleasure. Its ending, like most family endings, was touching and bittersweet.

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Friday, February 3, 2012

Sybil Exposed

In 1956 Shirley Mason (aka Sybil) was a student at Columbia University. She woke up one morning and realized she was in Philadelphia and had no idea how she got there or what she was doing there. The first events she could remember had happened 5 days before - she couldn't remember anything more recent.

Shirley Ardell Mason was raised as a 7th Day Adventist, very strict, no novels, no art both of which she loved. Her mother was very strict, her father not really engaged. Shirley first exhibited strange behavior in 1935 while in grade school. She had terrible mood swings, tended to "zone out," and forget where she was. As a child she was treated for a blood disorder which alleviated most of the symptoms. As a teenager she was brought to Dr. Cornelia Wilbur for therapy. This was a match mad in hell for Shirley.

Dr. Wilbur came from a Christian Scientist background. In 1930 she graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.S. in Science. She married and used her husband's money to pay for medical school. Psychiatry was her speciality. Wilbur considered herself on the cutting edge of feminism. Dr. Wilbur believed all of Shirley's symptoms were due to repressed memories and it was up to her to bring them out.

Wilbur had done some experimental work with drugs. Mostly mind altering ones the military was using, notably Pentothal. Wilbur would put Shirley into drug induced trances and hypnotic states that allowed Shirley to "remember" the abuse she allegedly suffered. Soon Wilbur was convinced that Shirley had multiple personalities that were responsible for some of the behavior.

Multiple personality diagnoses were extremely rare at this time and almost never made. The movie "The Three Faces of Eve" had been released and it set off an interest in the area. Most of the people diagnosed with multiple personalities had 1 or 2 other personalities. Shirley had 16. Intensive therapy followed. The professional relationship between the 2 women lasted for years. Shirley developed a serious case of transference. Wilbur continued to pump Shirley full of a cocktail of drugs: Pentothal, Seconal, Demerol, Edvisal and Daprisal. The last 2 drugs were removed from the market because of side effect issues. Any or all of the drugs could cause hallucinations and altered personalities as a side effect of the drug. Dr. Wilbur felt her methods were justified because multiple personality disorder was very rare and understudied.

Dr. Wilbur decided to approach Shirley about writing a book. They, in turn, get together with Flora Schrieber who at the time was writing free lance articles for women's magazines. Schreiber gets the information on "Sybil" from Dr. Wilbur and is immediately hooked. She neglects to verify most of the facts alleged by the doctor. She cobbles enough information together to write the book, although she will later admit to embellishing facts. Schreiber wants a happy ending for the book, so she hesitates to publish it.

Shirley had been keeping her own diary of her treatment sessions which chronicled some of her behavior. The diary showed that she craved positive comments from Dr. Wilbur. In 1975 Dr. Wilbur declared that Shirley's personalities had integrated and she stopped treatment, but by this time Dr. Wilbur was becoming a world renown multi-personality specialist. In 1958 Shirley wrote the doctor a letter saying she had made up the entire history. There were no multiple personalities. Wilbur didn't believe it. In fact she claimed an alternate personality wrote the letter. Therapy started up again along with the drugs.

Sybil was becoming more and more dependent on Dr. Wilbur, who was beginning to worry about this. The doctor was afraid that people would begin to realize that Shirley was actually Sybil. In 1965 Dr. Wilbur once again decides that all the personalities have finally integrated. Flora can now publish her book because she can give it a happy ending. The book was an immediate hit.

The book was turned over to a screenwriter named Stewart Stern. Stern had strong doubts about the story. He didn't believe the facts checked out but when Dr. Wilbur played some of the tapes from Shirley's therapy sessions he was convinced. What he didn't know was that Shirley was under the influence of some mind altering drugs at the time the tapes were made. Stern admitted that he also added some "deliberate fictions" to the screen play. No one could really verify anything with Sybil because no one knew her real name except Dr. Wilbur and Flora and they weren't telling. The fiction continued until the deaths of both Dr. Wilbur when her medical papers became part of a school archive.

This book is sad and horrifying on so many levels. Sad because Shirley had an entirely treatable disease called Pernicious Anemia, which likely caused most of her symptoms. Indeed she seemed to get better when she was treated for this as a child. Horrifying because the doctor who took advantage of Sybil did so for her own purposes and destroyed Shirley's life in the process. What I didn't realize was that this episode led to the fad of repressed memory therapy which in turn led to the wave of sexual assault charges in pre-schools and day care centers in the 1980's. The DSM, the bible of the therapy field, was changed several times because of Wilbur's treatment claims.

The book is written from the position of hindsight. Medical research has led to the banning of several of the drugs used in Shirley's therapy. The treatment method and diagnostic parameters have been changed. But what hasn't changed is the fact the everyone was sucked in to believing something totally unbelievable.

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