Category Archives: Biography

Notorious RBG by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik

RBG

Go to the bookstore or library right now and pick up this book. Don’t listen to the audio like I did, the pictures are the best part. As an audio, it’s too much like listening to someone read lists, or a timeline. So get the book and admire the artistic genius. After reading this and Sonya Sotomayor’s biographies, I am going to need to read every single biography that exists of Supreme Court justices. They are apparently all fascinating people (half the fun of this book is the exploration of the friendship between RBG and Antonin Scalia). Or maybe I will just start reading dissents – from the ones featured in this book and the one I read online the other day, each one could teach me more about law than I ever thought possible.

Seriously, if you consider yourself a feminist you have to read this. RBG has spent her life taking on cases of sex discrimination – against both men and women – hoping to establish the precedent that discrimination on the basis of sex is always wrong. She figures once that is accepted as a given that white men shouldn’t be discriminated against because of their gender, it will follow that discrimination against women is also wrong – and by extension, that discrimination on the basis of race is also wrong. She’s playing the long game, and I personally hope she lives forever, or at least long enough to see her dream realized.

The Education of Kevin Powell by Kevin Powell

kevinP

Ever choose a book to read based only on its cover? This was one of those. I was shelving holds and came across this adorable little boy (look at that outfit!) and wanted to read his story, even though I had never heard of Kevin Powell and had no idea why I should. Now that I’ve finished the book, I can tell you that the reason to read this book is that he’s a human, and he has something to say, and he is in a constant process of learning from his own mistakes, which makes him interesting.

Anyway, now I know who Kevin Powell is (I can’t believe I didn’t, but then I went through a period in my life where I didn’t watch TV, listen to new music, or read magazines much). He is a writer, a political organizer, a reality TV star, and a (so far) failed state congressional candidate. Most famously, he wrote for Vibe magazine and was one of the first people to write about Tupac Shakur. But the details of his life (which reads like a who’s who of American pop culture at times – this guy knows everybody) are less important than the insight he provides into a generation of African-American men who were steered strongly by their parents to get a good education and a better life, but simultaneously pulled away from that goal by circumstance, random choices, and the culture of their schools/ neighborhoods. Powell’s life story reminded me somewhat of both Wes Moores (The Other Wes Moore – reviewed earlier) – each of these men wanted badly to succeed, but each was constantly tempted down other paths or manipulated by systems in our society that many people don’t even see. For all of those people out there who don’t think that society is skewed to discriminate against people of color and poor people of all colors, this book (and The Other Wes Moore) will make it obvious that poor young people of color suffer a great deal more than their white, middle-class counterparts when a setback occurs. One poor choice, one bad grade, one random accident that a more affluent young person could overcome easily can completely derail a young person who has no safety net.

Warning: you might not actually like Kevin Powell at a few points. He is learning to manage his anger, and learning to let down his guard a little, but there’s no denying that for most of the book he is a very angry, defensive man who doesn’t like himself very much. He has some definite misogynistic leanings, and doesn’t like white people very much either. But what redeems him is that he knows these things about himself, and he’s working on it.  You can’t ask for more than that.

 

I Was a Child: A Memoir by Bruce Eric Kaplan

i was

You may not think you know who Bruce Eric Kaplan is, but once you see the illustrations and know that he goes by his initials (and if you ever read The New Yorker just for the comics), you’ll recognize him.

The book is a series of tiny snippets of Kaplan’s childhood, a sort of prose version of his trademark single-panel cartoons. The story is loosely arranged, hopping around chronologically so that I was never quite sure how old he was supposed to be at any given moment, but that was part of the book’s charm. It was like having someone tell you about his life in snippets of conversation, so that maybe you don’t know the whole life story in perfect order, but you have a feel for what made him who he is.

Anyway, if you like cartoons, if you like memoirs, if you like stories about people who grew up Generation X in America, you might like it. I think the moments of recognition were the best reason that I enjoyed the book – often, Kaplan starts or ends a passage with “I always thought” or “I wondered why” or “I felt like”… and I realized reading those passages that I’d thought/wondered/felt the exact same thing. The best parts are when he finishes one of those passage with “…and I still do.”

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

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I have been meaning to read this book since I got a free Kindle sample of the first chapter…oh, years ago now. But I didn’t get to it until this month, when my book club decided to try it. Of course because of the movie, no copies were available, so I waited on hold forever and a day and scored the audiobook at the last possible second.

I’m not sure how this book would read in my head, but initially I found the audiobook difficult to listen to. Since it essentially relates the events of Louis Zamperini’s life, and the author doesn’t try to tell a story so much as just get all the facts out there, it’s pretty dry at first. But after a chapter or two, I got so invested in Louie’s story that I found myself making excuses to drive somewhere so I could keep listening. One of the things I found most interesting was the information about the Japanese army’s exploits prior to Pearl Harbor. I’m not sure if it is my fault or the fault of my American History teachers, but I remember learning a bazillion details about how World War II began and spread through Europe, but in my mind the Japanese just sort of burst onto the scene by attacking Pearl Harbor and – poof! – they were in the war. But that isn’t what happened at all – they had already worked their way through Asia conquering people right and left along the way, the Americans were just next. Needless to say I need to read more Pacific-oriented WWII history to get the bigger picture.

Anyway. Even if Zamperini had never spent 47 days on a life raft in the Pacific and then 2 years in various war camps, his childhood and his running career would have made him interesting enough to fill a book. The thought of an American teenager one step away from juvenile deliquency deciding one day to attempt to qualify for the Olympics – without sponsors or a lifetime of coaching – was completely bizarre to me, but in Louie’s case, it worked. And the story of his trip to the Berlin Olympics was hilarious – can you see Olympic athletes today sharing an overseas trip on a cramped boat with no exercise space and showing up at the Olympics several weeks out of condition? But that’s how they did it, and despite overeating and gaining many pounds on the voyage, Louie ran in the Olympics anyway. It’s a great story.

But then the war starts, Louie joins the Air Force, and it’s all pretty scary after that. I hadn’t realized how deadly it was to be in World War II – my father’s stories of the war always seem relatively benign. Of course he didn’t enlist until 1943, and worked in a POW camp in the Philippines, which I suppose was pretty safe from bombing that late in the war. But bomber crews rarely lasted for longer than one or two attacks, and Louie’s crew is no exception. They survive their first, but damage their plane so badly and suffer so many injuries that their whole crew gets rearranged before their fateful “rescue mission” kills everyone but Louie and 2 others. And nothing my father ever told me about his POW camp (where he essentially took the prisoners from their bunks to meals, then to the fields for the day, and then took them back to their bunks at night) could prepare me for what happens to Louie in the Japanese camps.

During our discussion, one of my book club members said that she felt bad because she read the whole book, with all of its torture and hardships, and didn’t shed a tear until the part about the duck (the POWs get attached to a stray duck that hangs around their camp – I can’t even tell you what happens to the poor thing, it’s atrocious). I understood this reaction, though – the book is so full of horrible things being done to humans that if you stopped to really feel empathy for one of the people in the story, you would have to consider how awful it was for all of the others, and you’d be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of their collective horror. But somehow, it’s bearable to cry for an innocent duck, because there is only one of him. Anyway. If you want to keep any of your faith in the basic goodness of people, skip ahead a few chapters when you get to the duck part.

As for the cruelty and inhumanity, it IS hard to take – but what I found most awful was learning what happened to a lot of the men after the war was over. Louis Zamperini is an exception – most of the men who survived the POW camps did not go on to have decent postwar lives. Even Louie spent many years trying to drink himself to death before he found religion, turned his life around and forgave his captors. Frankly, I don’t know how he did it – forgiving must have been hard, and living a Christian life of service after being forced to serve others must have been daunting. But he and his brother truly did spend the rest of their postwar lives working with kids and making people’s lives better. I know I am an skeptic and tend to knock religion, but in this man’s case, Christianity really does what it is supposed to. It helps him get his life together, and leads him to help others. I can’t argue with success.

By the end, when Louie carries the Olympic torch through Nagano in 1988 near the site of his former camp, cheered on by millions of Japanese spectators, I defy you not to feel a little better about humanity.

My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor

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I read this for my book club, fully expecting it to be a ho-hum read about The Law and Big Important Political People. Not my bag, baby, you know? But it turns out Sonia Sotomayor is a ridiculously interesting person who has led a remarkable life, totally aside from being a Supreme Court Justice. Instead of focusing on her career in the memoir, which was what I expected, she instead chose to tell the story of her life with her family, from early childhood up through college and law school.

The fact that Sotomayor made it to law school in the first place is amazing. Have you read the book A Tree Grows in Brooklyn? Well, make Francie Puerto Rican and swap the Bronx for Brooklyn and you pretty much have this story down. Hardworking mother holding the family together while the alcoholic father drinks all the money, determined daughter seeing education as her ticket out of the projects, never enough money to feel safe…yup, it’s all there. Oh, and make Francie a diabetic, in the days when type 1 diabetes was practically a death sentence. The odds against Sonia Sotomayor becoming a Supreme Court Justice – or even surviving childhood and graduating from high school – were pretty poor, yet she managed not only to succeed but to excel. In her book she never brags about her accomplishments, and even though she realizes that what she has done in her life is remarkable, she never seems to imply that she is any smarter than anyone else – just more stubborn.

To put it simply, I liked her. She’d be a great person to have coffee with and pick her brain.

I alternated between reading and listening to this – the audiobook is read by Rita Moreno and she puts so much feeling into it that you really feel like Sonia is telling you the story of her life in person, complete with a perfect Puerto Rican accent for all the Spanish words and names. If you want to read this, be sure you listen to at least part of it to really bring it to life.