Posts filed under 'Biography/Memoir'

“Mistaken Identity” by Don and Susie Van Ryn and Newell, Colleen and Whitney Cerek with Mark Tabb

I must have been in hiding in 2006 because I don’t remember this story from the news at all. However, it is so bizarre, the fact that it is true boggles the mind. I think you’ll race through this memoir of two families (despite the fact that the writing isn’t great) because your disbelief will keep you turning the pages.

Whitney Cerak and Laura Van Ryan were students at Taylor University, a small, Christian college with campuses in Michigan and Indiana. Both are victims of an accident that killed five of the six students in a school van. One girl, who lived, was thrown 50 feet from the accident and sustained traumatic brain injuries. She was identified as Laura Van Ryn by someone from the university. For five weeks, the Van Ryn family stayed with their daughter round the clock, helping her to recover. Until she wasn’t their daughter anymore. She was actually Whitney Cerek. Laura had died in the accident. Whitney had lived. Imagine the pain for both families—Whitney’s family had already had a funeral and was grieving, believing she was dead. Laura’s family was posting a regular blog on her progress. Now they needed to understand that she had never made it through the accident.

What sustains both families is their faith. In a world where such a situation just sings LAWSUIT, the families don’t lay blame and look to God to sustain them. The book includes many examples of others who are so moved by the families’ faith, that their own faith is renewed. You’ll enjoy this on many levels—the strangeness of the story, the dedication of both families. And if stories of faith inspire you, these families will renew your belief in the goodness that is possible in the worst of times.

February 12, 2009

“A Three Dog Life” by Abigail Thomas

Here’s a memoir that truly is poignant (a word very much overused). When a teacher assigns memoir reading, ask if you can read “A Three Dog Life.” It’s short at 182 pages—many teachers here require a minimum of 200—but has more to offer than many much longer works. Point out to your teacher that the writing is wonderful, exactly the type that English teachers want you to be exposed to. The figurative language is quite simply lovely.

The author, Abigail Thomas, marries her third husband when she is 46 and he is 57. She describes him as the nicest man in the world, and they live together for thirteen years. Their lives crack open one day when Abigail learns that her dog, Harry, is in the apartment building elevator by himself. Where is her husband, Rich?

The tragic answer is that Rich has been hit by a car while going after Harry, whose leash had broken. Rich suffers a traumatic brain injury and it’s permanent. This nicest man in the world then has short-term memory loss, hallucinations, and becomes paranoid and violent. I expected here to have a story about what a drag Abigail’s life became—or a rationale for why she had to divorce her husband, as he must be hospitalized due to his rages. But no. Thomas discusses how she moved from her Manhattan apartment in order to be closer to her husband. Rather than seeing herself as a martyr, she shows the reader what is still good in her life. She records the strange and beautiful way her husband speaks and finds that, though he never put any stock in such things, he now has a sixth sense that surfaces under the strangest circumstances.

The title is based on the idea of a ‘three dog night’—a night so cold that one has to cuddle with three dogs in order to survive. (I actually knew this because when I was very young, a popular band was named Three Dog Night!) And in the course of her years after Rich’s accident, Abigail does acquire two more dogs. Thomas wrote another memoir that discusses the death of her second husband entitled “Safekeeping.” At present, we don’t have it in our library, but it appears to contain the same wonderful writing and lucid understanding of life’s foibles, so I’ll try to get (afford) it.

January 8, 2009

“Same Kind of Different as Me” by Ron Hall and Denver Moore with Lynn Vincent

Ms. G here at COHS recommended this book to me because it was so moving that she couldn’t put it down. It’s quite a tale—and I think you, too, will be moved to tears.

Author Ron Hall is married to a woman who cares so deeply for others that her story is pure inspiration to the reader. Debra Hall’s willingness to not only feed and clothe but befriend the homeless shows us what true faith can do—it knocks the patronizing ego right off the shelf and helps us see the real person we are connecting with. Debra’s faith is the force that lets her recognize Denver Moore as a man for whom God has big plans.

Denver was a homeless African-American who came to the Union Gospel Mission for meals, but who kept himself apart from others and trusted no one–with good reason. Denver grew up in the American South not only under Jim Crow laws, but as a sharecropper—which translates as a sort of modern slavery. He lived in a place that time left behind, where he works land he doesn’t own and owes money to ‘the man’ for bare essentials. He never went to school; being illiterate, there seems to be no escape for him from desperate poverty. (There’s a story of racism in the book that will chill your bones, but I don’t want to give away the whole book!)

Denver and other homeless people start referring to the Halls as “Mr. and Mrs. Tuesday” because they work at the homeless mission every Tuesday, unlike most folks who are just holiday volunteers. Soon Deborah is spending many days each week helping, organizing outing, and more. Denver’s faith is revived through Deborah’s actions.

When tragedy strikes the Halls, the tables turn and Denver’s friendship helps them keep their faith. As Denver says, using fishing as his metaphor, true friendship isn’t a catch-and-release program. It’s for keeps.

When your teacher asks you to read a biography or memoir, pick this one up and see how ordinary people overcome extraordinary obstacles.

December 4, 2008

“Escape” by Carolyn Jessop and “Stolen Innocence” by Elissa Wall

I have to admit that I’ve become somewhat fascinated with polygamists cults in the last few years. As I read headlines about kids being removed from polygamist parents—and given back—I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to live in such an alternative universe. The idea of living with a husband and several ‘sister wives’ really has an ick factor for me because of the sexual issues, but I also think I wouldn’t be able to live with ‘sister wives’ in my house even if they weren’t my husband’s concubines. Who wants some other woman telling her how to run her household?

In “Escape,” Carolyn Jessup affirms my suspicions about too many women in the home. When she’s only sixteen years old, Carolyn is forced to marry a man who is something of an enemy to her family—a man who already has three other wives and will go on to have at least two more (the six that are discussed in the book) and is more than thirty years Carolyn’s senior. Ok, so this had more than an ick factor for me—it was just plain gross.

Carolyn’s husband plays his wives off of one another. It’s interesting because all but one can’t stand him, and yet they vie for his affection and are jealous of one another. He alternates sleeping with (and impregnating) them. Carolyn has baby after baby—eight in all—and one of her children is severely disabled. Yet none of the other ‘sister wives’ will help her when she is ill—at one point pregnancy and childbirth almost kill her—because they are envious. They tell her that her child’s disability is God’s judgment on her for being willful and disobedient. The “alpha wife”—the one that Jessop cares for—rules the roost, making the others cook and clean. She beats the children that are not her own. (Kids of the lesser wives have to watch out because life is precarious for them.) When Carolyn’s insides finally fall out and she has a hysterectomy, I thought she’d be saved from sleeping with the dirty old man because, according to the religious tenets of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), the point in polygamy is to procreate. But no, Jessop stills demands sex, that is, when she isn’t sending Carolyn off to work in some hole-in-the-wall motel.

Elissa Wall of “Stolen Innocence” has a slightly different story. She is only fourteen when forced to marry. She tries everything she can to get out of it, but the church’s leader, Warren Jeffs, won’t listen. He arranges the marriages based on his visions from God. (He is the community’s prophet—he arranged Carolyn Jessop’s marriage as well.) Elissa’s husband is also young, and she is his first wife. However, the ick factor is there. He’s her first cousin, and one with whom she has never gotten along. He was always mean to her. At fourteen, having lived in a super-protective environment, Elissa knows nothing about sex. Her husband rapes her on a regular basis. She is so afraid of him that she takes to sleeping in a truck.

Elissa has several miscarriages and a still birth. I guessed that all her unborn and just-born babies had died from genetic deformities caused by being the products of first cousins. However, the book doesn’t discuss this. When Elissa does finally break away and marry the man she wants to marry, she has healthy children.

Both books have a lot of detail about the structure of the FLDS society and its leader, Warren Jeffs. I finally had my question about boys answered. (If each man is supposed to have so many wives, aren’t there extra boys, and then men, left over? Yes, there are—they call them lost boys and throw them out on the road to fend for themselves when they are young. This keeps the ratio of men to women low.) When Jeffs is arrested, Elissa is one of the primary witnesses against him in his trial. The situation of the women in the FLDS sect–-to submit to husbands in mind, body and soul—reminds me of the situation of women today in some third world countries. It also reminds me of the novel (so, yes, that means it’s fiction) “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood. That book is about a not-too-distant future United States after some sort of nuclear event when a religious sect takes over the government and reduces all women to servants and concubines. “Escape” and “Stolen Innocence” remind us that sometimes such things actually happen—and right in our own backyard.

November 20, 2008

“Out of War: True Stories from the Front Lines of the Children’s Movement for Peace in Columbia” by Sara Cameron

Nine chapters of “Out of War’ each discuss one of the child leaders of the Children’s Movement for Peace in Columbia. For many years, Columbia has been torn apart by political factions, drug lords that wrestle for control over regions, gangs and extreme poverty, both rural and urban. In the mid-1990s, UNICEF (a United Nations children’s organization), the Catholic Church and others helped to create the Children’s Peace Movement. The children who tell their stories not only give us a picture of the peace movement, but of the terrible lives they have survived.

Juan Elias’ father and cousin are assassinated one day in the father’s dental office. Juan had hoped to go to work with his father that day, but was late getting ready. Maritza comes from a violent home and although she tries to make peace, she lives a dual life and is caught up in street gangs. Johemir lived alone for eight months when he was only ten years old because his mother had to take a job in another area just to survive. He and others volunteer in the “Return to Happiness” program help small children who are victims of violence—one seven-year-old boy reported having seen his father murdered, cut up, put in a bag and thrown in a river. Unfortunately, stories like this are quite common.

For me, one of the most interesting things about what the teens said about their experiences was how they had learned that revenge didn’t work. Ultimately, many talk about forgiveness and the need to be the ones to end the violence. This idea can relate to violence in other ways—what students might be experiencing here in Southern California—in cities, schools, and in their homes. I hope COHS student will comment on this. What did you think of the ‘children’s referendum’ in which millions of children ages 7-18 voted for the rights to life and peace as their most important rights? How does this help—or does it?

If you enjoyed the book, the author also wrote ‘Natural Enemies,” which is an eco-novel. If you are interested in more information about the Children’s Movement, check the list of websites and resources at the back of the book.

September 17, 2008

“The Glass Castle” by Jeannette Walls

Yes, memoirs of dysfunctional families and abused children are quite popular among adults now as they are among teens. “The Glass Castle” could be grouped into this genre, but it is set apart by the fact that Walls’ parents are not overtly abusive—they seem to love their children—but they are so neglectful that it defies imagination. How the Walls children managed to grow up and escape a life of poverty is a great read.

Walls’ father was an alcoholic and her mother was an (unsuccessful) artist. Both are completely impractical and have no parenting skills. They allow the kids to do as they please and to raise themselves. Jeannette severely burns herself when she is three because she catches fire trying to make herself a hotdog. The dangerous mix of children and fire still doesn’t sink in for the parents, and there are several close encounters throughout the book.

Mrs. Walls has a teaching certificate, but is rarely employed because she doesn’t like the routine or getting up in the morning. She has an excuse for everything about her life and nothing seems to bother her too much. If the family doesn’t have the money to feed its pets, then all the better—the pets are learning survival skills. Rex Walls is very intelligent, but he always has pie-in-the-sky schemes and resorts to alcohol and arguing on the job, which routinely get him fired. He seems to make more money playing poker than he does working. Thus the kids have to learn survival skills just as the pets do. They sleep on cardboard boxes and cover themselves with a plastic raft to keep the rain off when the roof leaks. They scrounge for food and eat out of the schoolyard trashcans. If the family accumulates too much debt—or just gets the itch to move—they ‘skedaddle.’ They don’t pay to have the garbage collected, and it ends up in a large hole the kids had dug in the yard—a hole that was supposed to be for the fountain of the ‘glass castle,’ a dream house that Rex is always modifying plans for and never building.

While the kids are young, they are able to believe in the glass castle of their future. Their father has sometimes delightful ways of disguising his negligence—such as the Christmas when the kids will get no presents, but he takes each of them outside to name a one of the stars in the night sky as their own. However, ultimately, the children must place themselves in reality.

September 16, 2008

“Running with Scissors” and “A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father” by Augustine Burroughs

As I watch students pick out biographies for class assignments, it always occurs to me that there are books you’d like better if you just knew what they were about. It seems that the same few subjects are always selected—Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana. Even when students choose Martin Luther King, Jr., I know it is because they already know a lot about his life from reading about him every year from fourth grade on.

I’ve asked your teachers if you can read memoirs when assigned biographies and, happily, the answer is yes. The hard thing about finding a memoir is that it won’t be cataloged with the biographies. It will be found wherever its subject is found. So a good book about a boy soldier in modern-day Sierra Leone is cataloged with books on Africa—and you’ll probably never find it. To get some of these good books into your hands, I thought I’d review some of my favorites. So I’ll start with one I just read, “A Wolf at the Table.”

Augustine Burroughs has written several memoirs, the most famous of which is “Running with Scissors,” which was made into a movie. “Running” is one of those crazy books that should make you weep for the terrible life of an emotionally and psychologically abused child, but that makes you laugh out loud as well. In it Burroughs discusses his childhood. His mentally ill mother hands him over to her (rather crazy) psychiatrist who adopts Burroughs. He describes his life in the doctor’s home as a mad house. The family never cleans anything and keeps a Christmas tree up all year. The wife of the psychiatrist is also a psychologically beaten woman who eats dog food as a snack. Though Burroughs is only thirteen years old, he is encouraged in a relationship with a man in his mid-thirties—a relationship that any normal person would regard as child abuse. The psychiatrist arbitrarily offers medication (drugs) to Augustine and makes predictions about the future through ‘Bible dipping” and reading the angles of his stool in the toilet.

Burroughs emerges worse for the wear. He has a second memoir “Dry” in which he discusses his alcoholism. “A Wolf at the Table” is Burroughs’ most recent best seller. Here he goes back in time from his other memoirs to remember his father, a philosophy professor at the University of Massachusetts. Professor Robison is psychologically cruel. He will never show Augustine affection, and in fact, seems to enjoy watching others suffer. Burroughs makes a ‘father’ out of clothes and pillows. His real father kills Augustine’s guinea pig and turns his dog into a violent attack animal that must be euthanized. He calls his son and tells him that he is going to kill him. The fact that Burroughs survived and remained sane, even funny, is a testimony to the human spirit.

September 16, 2008

Bad Boy: A Memoir by Walter Dean Myers

Another quick book that I read this summer was “Bad Boy: A Memoir” by Walter Dean Myers. Myers is a well-known (and well-loved) author of young adult fiction and has written several books that are popular here at COHS including “Monster,” “Fallen Angels,” and “Slam!” “Bad Boy” is the story of Meyers’ childhood and young adult years. It’s a good, quick read for anyone with a biography assignment or anyone just interested in the author of some of their favorite books.

Myers grew up in Harlem in the 1940s. His memoir gives us a sense of place and how much Harlem meant to Meyers as a boy. His upbringing is unusual: though his parents are alive, he is adopted by the ex-wife of his father and her husband—the Deans—when he is just a small child. “Mama” read to him daily, and this was the seed of Myers’ love of reading and writing.

Though his experiences as a child are limited, as Myers grows and sees more of the world outside Harlem, he experiences racism. In addition, he has a speech impediment, and because he is often teased, he fights on a regular basis. His friendship with a white boy falls apart as they grow old enough to go to clubs where Myers is not allowed because of his race. Though Myers is a gifted child and attends an accelerated junior high, by high school he is frequently truant. He cannot reconcile himself the fact that he is receiving a good education just to be a manual laborer. Some of his classmates are applying to colleges that, again, are closed to Myers because of his race.

Thank goodness Myers finally found his writing voice and listened to an English teacher who told him, “Whatever happens, don’t stop writing.”

September 16, 2008

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

The subtitle of this work—“A Memoir in Books”—shows us that Nafisi plans to discuss not only her life in post-revolutionary Iran under Islamic rule and the Ayatollah Khomeini, but also the books that she read during this period of her life and how and why they mattered.

As a young woman, Nafisi had lived in the United States. When she returns to Iran after the revolution, she finds it utterly changed. Her love of literature, her reading, has become a subversive activity. A professor at the University of Tehran, she loses her post because she refuses to wear the veil. She decides to hand select a group of young women who also love literature and to hold clandestine meetings at her house to discuss “immoral” books such as those by Jane Austin, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and of course, Nabokov, the author of “Lolita.”

The memoir weaves the discussion of these books with the lives of the young women attending the class at Nafisi’s house. I know that some of you are reading this book as a summer requirement for English 4 Honors. It is a great read about the power of corrupt government over the lives of freedom-loving individuals, and I think you’ll have a lot to discuss on this subject. But it’s also a fun analysis of many great books, and I realize that you will not have read most of these. I loved Nafisi’s class’s discussions of “Washington Square” by Henry James and of its female protagonist who is neither very smart nor very pretty—and who is manipulated by everyone important in her life. But then, I think it’s unlikely that you will have read this book. Again, when I see one of the women in the class say, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Muslim man, regardless of his fortune, must be in want of a nine-year-old virgin wife,” I wonder if you’ll know that she is paraphrasing the opening of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”—and to great effect.

There is much in this book for those who haven’t read the literature Nafisi discusses. There is so much more for those who have. If you have the opportunity in any of your classes here at COHS to select a novel for analysis, you could have a great time with one of the works discussed in “Reading Lolita in Tehran” and comparing Nafisi’s class’s analysis of the book to your own.

The following are ideas from “Reading Lolita” that I think will make good discussion points about your summer reading:

“That room, for all of us, became a place of transgression.”

“‘Reality has become so intolerable. . . that all I can paint now are the colors of my dreams.’ . . . I like that. How many people get a chance to paint the colors of their dreams? . . . This class was the color of my dreams. It entailed an active withdrawal from a reality that had turned hostile.”

“I remember reading to my girls Nabokov’s claim that ‘readers were born free and ought to remain free.’”

“If she gets into a bus, the seating is segregated. She must enter through the rear door and sit in the back seats, allocated to women.”

“Much later, when I read a sentence by Nabokov—‘curiosity is insubordination in its purest form’—the verdict against my father came to mind. . . . Every great work of art . . .is a celebration, an act of insubordination against betrayals, horrors and infidelities of life.”

“We must thank the Islamic Republic for making us rediscover and even covet all these things we took for granted: one could write a paper on the pleasure of eating a ham sandwich.”

“The only way to leave the circle, to stop dancing with the jailer, is to find a way to preserve one’s individuality, that unique quality which evades description but differentiates one human being from the other. That is why, in their world, ritual—empty rituals—become so central. There was not much difference between our jailers and Cincinnatus’s executioners. They invaded all private spaces and tried to shape every gesture, to force us to become one of them, and that in itself was another form of execution.”

July 12, 2008

Many of the books that are popular with young adults have a life crisis as their theme. All teenagers can relate to trauma and good novels and biographies often help the reader to see through the anguish. They can show us how others behave in difficult situations, how they manage to survive and grow stronger. One such book is In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer.

            This memoir, written by Irene Gut Opdyke, discusses the author’s experience as a Holocaust rescuer in Poland. Opdyke, now a senior citizen living in Southern California, decided to write about her experiences during the Holocaust when she saw Southern Californian teenagers claiming to be ‘neo-Nazis.’

            Irene Gut was a Polish Catholic who had been raised to ‘do the right thing.’ When she was seventeen, her country was invaded, first by Russians who rape and imprison her, and later by Germans who hold her as a slave laborer. When a German officer discovers that Irene speaks German fluently, he removes her from a factory and places her in a German officers’ hall. Here she befriends several Jews who work in the laundry and can view the Jewish ghetto, created by the Germans. She witnesses the murder of innocent people in the streets and learns that extermination camps are the German answer to “the Jewish problem.” From this day forward, Irene helps Jewish people whenever she can although she knows the penalty for doing so is death.

            Beginning with small acts such as stealing food from the officers’ hall and taking it to the ghetto, Irene’s bravery becomes astounding as she saves all of her friends who work in the laundry from being removed to death camps, aids freedom fighters in the forest, and even hides Jews in the basement of a high-ranking German officer’s home. I think her story is so inspiring to teenagers because Irene was between seventeen and twenty-two years old when she did these things.

            In My Hands is available in our library now.

June 5, 2008


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