Saturday, September 12, 2015

A History Story for Our Time

Coming Out of the Ice, Victor Herman
Freedom Press, 1979, 369 pages

Sometimes readers get on a kick and read similar things for a while: books about animals, or biographies of famous people, or fantasy fiction. If there's a kick that's sure to both bring you down and make you wildly glad to be alive, it's memoirs of prison camp survivors.

After a friend found out that I loved Unbroken, she loaned me Coming Out of the Ice: An Unexpected Life with promises that I'd be impressed. I devoured almost the whole the book in three days. And with each turn of the page, I became more and more grateful for the life I have, and for the choices my parents - and their parents - have made which have given me this free and overflowing life.  

Victor's story hinges, as do most lives, on the decisions and passions of his parent. His father, Sam, a Socialist living in Depression-era Detroit, jumped at the chance to live in Russia for a few years, helping to further the cause in a practical way as an auto mechanic for the Ford Motor Company. Victor was a teenager in 1931 when he traveled with his family to Russia and he expected to be back home in three years. Instead, he spent the next 45 years battling one harsh Russian wilderness after another: first a long and unexplained imprisonment, then a sentence of lumberjacking forests in Siberia, then an isolated exile, and finally an extended tangle in the endless red tape of the Russian government.

But it didn't start out that way. For the first few years, life in Russia bloomed for Victor. He found himself to be skilled at nearly every sport he attempted, and joined local teams to compete in basketball, riflery, boxing, and track events. Later, after being taught to fly airplanes in a prestigious flying school, he taught himself fancy piloting tricks, took up parachute-jumping, and even logged a world record deadfall jump. He even became known internationally as the Lindbergh of Russia.

And then... An arrest one July afternoon after a track practice. A year in one prison cell shared with fifteen other men. Fifty-five nights of brutal beatings. No less than four different Siberian prison camps where failure to chop down the required trees meant no food and where even meeting quota brought barely a mouthful. Nearly two hundred covert meals of raw rat. Bits of toe chopped off with scissors after frostbite. "It was like anything else," Victor said of one camp's cruel method of food distribution. "You couldn't believe it at first. Then you got good at it. And then you prided yourself on your skill. That's what being a prisoner is, in a way - a man who at first can't believe it, and then he gets good at it, and then proud of getting good at what he could not believe."

Coming Out of the Ice records a life that became so unexpected, Victor ceased to be surprised. Unlike most who were subjected to similar experiences, Victor came back. "But not all of me came back," he said. "Something, I left behind. I think it was disbelief. Not ever again would I not believe. It will happen - whatever can happen will."

Today there is terror just as unbelievable on the other side of the globe. And for me, most of the time, it's easy to draw the curtains and leave it over there, hidden behind the headlines of articles that I choose not to read. But a story like Victor Herman's brings the real brutalities of oppressors into focus and reminds me that it's safe to assume that "whatever can happen will." Will my perfectly blooming life take a sharp turn toward something resembling Victor's eighteen years of imprisonment? Will my son's life? Could something so unexpected happen to us?

Victor doesn't mention faith in his narrative, so I don't know if he clung to the hope of eternal peace while enduring his tortured life. But whether he intended to or not, he pushed me to grip tightly to something no one can take away, to fix my eyes on the place prepared for me, and to prepare my heart for enormous loss, knowing that the things which really matter are secured already. It's not the sort of book I'd like to read often, but a prison memoir brings a helpful perspective to a life that seems rather ordinary. And perhaps it is mine, the one laced with blessings and heaped up high with things to be grateful for, that is actually the unexpected one.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

One Jumbo of a Sad Story

Jumbo: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant in the World, Paul Chambers
Steerforth Press, 2008, 208 pages

*Alert: Spoilers included*

I fell head over heels for circus lore after reading Water for Elephants, and was dying to get my hands on some real-life circus stories. The story of Jumbo seemed a perfect place to start. But this book was sad from start to finish. I turned the last page feeling disappointed, and Chambers' tone suggested that he did as well. His last line, which quotes the adage, "The bigger they come, the harder they fall," paints Jumbo's life as ultimately a let-down.

From the very start, Jumbo's entrance into captivity was marked by violence. The Victorian era had developed an entire business around the sale and trade of wild animals, so capturing elephant calves, and necessarily slaughtering their mothers, was common. I have a middle-of-the-road attitude about treatment of animals: I like to see animals treated with kindness, but I would never elevate the importance of an animal with that of a person. Perhaps the killing of Jumbo's mother, and other wild elephants, was excessively cruel, but perhaps bringing a baby elephant into captivity for the delight of thousands of people should be expected to have such a cost. Regardless, it does tug at the heartstrings to read about a baby taken so forcibly from his dying mother.

Jumbo's life in captivity continued to be laced with illness, deception, manipulation, and anger. Though he came to be nearly a national mascot while residing in the London Zoo, he was given to fits of rage and during some periods, his battered enclosure required daily repair. His keeper, a withdrawn and unsocial man, grew wildly possessive of Jumbo, not allowing anyone else to train or handle him. When sold to the American circus tycoon, P.T. Barnum, Jumbo apparently refused to go and it took the team nearly two months from the time of sale before they contrived a successful plan to move the animal from his London dwelling to the steamer that would take him across the Atlantic.

After just four years of touring with Barnum's circus, Jumbo met a shocking and violent end in a train wreck. His preserved and stuffed skin, which first toured with the circus and was then donated to Tufts College where it stood for decades, also met a tragic end when the building caught fire in the 1970's. His keeper, who had always been a loner and was even more solitary after the death of his companion, dropped off the map and most likely died in poverty. Even Jumbo's "wife," a female elephant who'd been housed with him in London and was later bought by Barnum's circus, was killed in a fire several years after Jumbo's death. How's that for an upbeat tale?

Jumbo might have lived up to 60 years in the wild had he never been captured. He might have enjoyed 30 or more in the London Zoo, if he hadn't been so troublesome. As it was, he was killed at the age of about 25, but his impact outstripped his lifespan for he had entertained tens of thousands of people in both Britain and in the United States and had planted his name firmly into the American soil as a household adjective.

If nothing else, Jumbo's story reminds us that nothing in this world can last and that perhaps by trying to hold on to something we love, we only make the parting more difficult when it finally comes. Furthermore, it uncovers the fact that life in the zoo or the circus is not as glitzy and magical as you might assume. Danger and exhaustion are a way of life and when tragedy strikes, the show must go on (even if it means whisking a killed acrobat from the ring before anyone notices). As a pleasure read, Jumbo was informative but discouraging. I suggest you take your reading hours elsewhere.

Friday, July 10, 2015

It's Like Riding a Bike

Life is a Wheel: A Memoir of a Bike-Riding Obituarist, Bruce Weber
Scribner, 2014, 333 pages

This book chose me, right from its spot on a library end-cap. It begged to be read and I couldn’t refuse. So I took it home and barreled through it, gobbling up Bruce Weber’s two-wheeled trip across the country in record time. My reading was record time, not his journey. It took him around three months, a little longer than his first trip. Yes, this is the memoir of a man cycling across the US for the second time. Day after day of cycling, averaging around 50 miles a day, took Bruce from Oregon to New York City. For a cyclist like me, though I’ve never ridden farther than across the skinny state of New Jersey, this book rang true time and time again. I could feel the aching "sit-bones," relate to the constant calculating that overtakes the mind as we measure time against distance, sense the flood of relief that happens when the narrow highway shoulder finally opens up or an alternate route suddenly appears. Only cyclists know the particular muscles that ache when you climb back on your bike after a lunch break or the specific rush of camaraderie that you get from seeing another cyclist along your lonesome route. Weber’s book will be most appreciated by those who wear toe-clip shoes. 

For those less wheel-inclined, though, Weber’s story can still be enjoyed. In a blend of recollections about his own life - stories about his mom and dad, past and present romances, and the death of a longtime friend – along with the nitty-gritty details about his cross-country journey, Life is a Wheel is a smooth hybrid of travel story and memoir. Weber unabashedly compares life to riding a bicycle: you're mostly thinking about the next pedal-stroke, the next hot shower in the next motel room, the highway in the distance you'll need to cross. Sometimes the ride itself becomes so absorbing that as the miles to home become less, you may even began to wonder, "What will I do when I get there?" And as much as you long for the breath-taking ride over the continental divide or checking off your longest day of mileage yet, when the ultimate end approaches, you suddenly wish it would slow down. For a writer who has specialized in writing obituaries, Weber understands the suddenness with which life can end. Cycling 4000 miles creates a microcosm of the journey of life: a definite end in sight, a lot to do along the way, and the danger of forgetting how brief it all really is. Life is a Wheel reminds us to keep pedaling, notice the scenery, and not wish away any of the time or distance because the end comes all too soon. I recommend this book heartily for any cyclist, anyone who loves to travel, or anyone who's ever noticed the similarity between riding a bike and journeying through life.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Breathe Easy: Oxygen is a great beach read for your summer vacation

Oxygen, Carol Cassella
Simon and Schuster, 2008, 288 pages

A good novel lingers, like an anesthesia, clinging to you long after it’s over. I finished Oxygen this week and three days later I’m still thinking about it. Without being a full-fledged mystery novel, Oxygen delivers enough of a who-done-it feel to keep you on the edge of your seat while hitting close enough to home to stay believable. Marie Heaton, a highly regarded physician in her respected Seattle hospital, is wading through the emotional and legal aftermath of an operating room tragedy. At the same time, a faded romance from the past is edging its way back into her life while she also navigates the awkwardness of helping her aging dad realize his dependency. Work stress, romantic uncertainty, and family tension swirl into a perfect storm for Marie’s life.

This was Carol Cassella’s first novel, but her writing is fabulous. She writes as naturally about a doctor’s morning routines “sorting through stacks of paperwork, unfolding sterile blue drapes across massive tables, adjusting lights, spreading out fields of stainless steel” as she does about the backyard at Marie’s dad’s house, “the green weedy lawn, the rotting fence, the caving garden shed, the leggy wands of my mother’s roses, grown amok.” A child’s bedroom, a vacant strip-mall lot, a bachelor pad, and a theme park are each hung around the reader’s mind like theater scenes, evoked completely with the briefest of descriptions. Cassella’s narrator, Marie, is ordinary and natural, preferring “a faded cable-knit sweater in army green, blue jeans, and water-stained clogs” to trendy fashions, not ashamed to kneel in the grass with a niece who wants to play princesses, and willing to swallow her fear of flying if the trade-off is a private picnic lunch with her best friend who happens to be an amateur pilot.

Oxygen delivers a satisfying ending without being cheesy. It’s got characters with honor, aiming to do the right thing in a difficult world. It’s serious without being too heavy, romantic without being sappy, and insightful without being philosophical. Oxygen won’t disappoint as a quick read for summer on the beach or winter by the fireplace. Three cheers for this contemporary novel. Can’t wait to dive into Cassella’s other books!

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Untangling HeLa

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot
Broadway Books, 2010, 328 pages

I usually avoid trending books, so it took me five years to read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Hype deters me, as if something that appeals to the masses couldn’t also be genuinely good. Immortal Life set me straight. Nonfiction at its finest, the book braids the author’s journey into the Lacks family’s confidence, scientific history, and life stories about Henrietta and her family members into a single seamless narrative. The applause this book received was well-earned.

Henrietta Lacks, a black woman descended from slaves, lived near Baltimore in the forties and fifties, raising her five children and scraping out a life for herself well below the poverty line. She died at the age of 31 after about 10 months of battling cervical cancer. In the years following her death, and unbeknownst to her family, her cancerous cells (named HeLa) were cultured in research labs around the world, teaching doctors and scientists about how cells function, inspiring vaccines and multiplying endlessly until they were so plentiful that, if laid end to end, “they’d wrap around the earth three times.” In the meantime, Henrietta’s family was trudging along, poor and uneducated, freckled with abuse and divorce and crime. Upon finally learning about what had happened with Henrietta’s cells, the family felt cheated, angry and bitter at a system that seemed to making millions on the cells their mother had left behind.

Into this comes Rebecca Skloot, a white and presumably well-to-do college student studying biology in the 1980’s. She found herself drawn to the absence of any story behind the mysterious Henrietta Lacks mentioned in her first biology class and, after some digging, discovered that no one seemed to know much at all about the woman whose DNA thrived decades after her death and whose biopsied tissue changed the face of medicine forever. Intrigued, she eventually started a decade-long hunt for the life story of Henrietta Lacks, committed to simply telling her story to the world that was already benefitting from her in dozens of ways. Rather than stifling her own role in teasing out the long history of Henrietta’s “immortal life,” Skloot includes herself in the story as a key character, honest about the family’s initial distrust of her, the bonds she eventually forged with several of them, and the journey they took together to uncover the truths behind Henrietta’s life and death.

Skloot tells more than an informative story of a woman’s whose cells changed the course of medical history. She opens the privacies of one family tree, reminding us that our own family histories are also tangles of emotions, truths told and untold, hodgepodges of partial understandings about events long-past. Immortal Life will be salient to doctors, scientists, researchers, and medical students. But it transcends the bounds of science reminding us that any life is, in its own way, immortal because everyone leaves something behind.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Mama Bird

First Meals, Annabel Karmel
DK, 2004 updated edition, 187 pages

Oh, the feeding of a little one. A mother's task from the moment a new baby screams her first breath. I was grateful for an easy five months of exclusively breastfeeding my son, and he transitioned easily to baby rice cereal and baby oatmeal around 5 months old. But when it was time to add purees and combinations, I needed help. My library had a copy of First Meals. I checked it out, renewed it, and renewed it again. I had to have a copy.

The first thing I loved about the book was the layout. It's got glossy pages, lots of full-color photos of food and babies, and lists of ingredients in bold along the margin of the page for easy glancing. This is really helpful. In addition to recipes, each chapter contains helpful tips, medically-backed advice, and guidance for parents. Sidebars with bullet-point lists of things to remember or pantry staples or nutritional needs to keep in mind are easy to read and packed with information.

The recipes themselves don't require a degree from cooking school, but describe ingredients and procedures simply enough to be accessible to the amateur chef. Our favorite meal when Henry was just getting started with puree blends was Lentil and Vegetable Puree. I was actually envious of my son when he was chowing down on a lunch of Lentil and Veggie Puree! Pasta options, chicken and fish meals, and vegetable-rich dishes are featured in every chapter. In the chapter for babies between 9 and 12 months, meals include Apple and Date Oatmeal, Cheesy Pasta Stars, Creamy Chicken and Broccoli, and Flaked Cod with Tomatoes and Zucchini. Finger food choices appear in later chapters, and many of the recipes for older babies are tasty enough for the whole family. Weekly menu suggestions in the back of the book provide inspiration and encouragement to keep going when homemade baby foods start to feel like a burden.

For new moms first weaning little ones, nannies and babysitters looking for creative meal options, or veteran moms and grandmoms needing new inspiration, First Meals has friendly recipes and practical ideas that will please little ones from their first tastes until their first lunchboxes.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Love Under the Big Top

Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen 
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2006, 331 pages

I wanted an easy reread this past week, a quick escape into another world. It’s been a few years since I first read Water for Elephants, but I couldn’t put it down the first time and I was craving that momentum again. The second read was almost as good as the first and since a truly great novel would be even better the second time around, I can’t really give this one the highest possible marks. But it’s a personal favorite for sure and one I’ll recommend – with some caveats – to fiction lovers, especially those who like stories about animals, as I’ve found I do.

It’s depression-era New York. A college student is about to take his final exams at Cornell University when a family tragedy sends him on the open road alone. He hops a train – a circus train, of course – and the summer that follows crams in enough adventure to fill the Big Top several times over. There’s sex and there’s violence, more than my taste would prefer, but there’s love and kindness and beauty too. Picture an eccentric bunch of circus carnies trying to scrape a living out of a dead economy. Picture an upstanding near-graduate from an Ivy League school sharing half a boxcar with a midget clown and his dog. Picture a sequined beauty riding pure white horses and a half-mad animal trainer tricking newbies into feeding the lions by hand. And every night the circus train hurtles down the tracks toward the next town, crawling with the boss's henchmen assigned to toss working men out of cars when there’s not enough pay to go around. All the while, college boy is falling in love with two ladies: the woman riding the horses, and the fifty-three year old elephant.

At the end of the novel Sara Gruen includes an author’s note about some real life elephants whom she read about and who inspired her character, Rosie. It was these anecdotes that tipped the scales for me from liking this book to really loving it.  Though it’s fiction through and through, Gruen picked tidbits from circus history to make her story ring true. Knowing that things like that actually did happen makes the farfetched parts seem believable too.

I’ve become more discerning as I’ve gotten older, and a little more picky about the moral content of a novel. This one disappointed on that front. At the heart of the story is an illicit romance that’s poorly justified. So for that reason, I hesitate to recommend the book wholeheartedly. But Gruen’s thesis is noble: take care of the weak, and the weak will take care of you. Kindness wins. It’s got a happy ending and a likable supporting cast. It’s fun and quick and a bit like hopping a circus train yourself: be prepared to be swept off for a wild ride.