Moving Memoir by the Black Female Transplant Surgeon

Velma Scantlebury has written an important book that covers a lot of the history of organ transplantation and underscores the difficulty of surgical training, particularly for black women. Beyond Every Wall –Becoming the First Black Female Transplantation Surgeon is a masterful and thoughtful self-published memoir, that is easily purchased on line. It is written in a series of reflections or essays, which is a good way to capture a rich, busy life.

CAVEAT: Velma Scantlebury is a long-time friend; my husband worked and trained with her in Pittsburgh, so the environment she describes is very familiar. I have always been in awe of her accomplishments and perseverance, but I can also hear her laugh as I read the book. If nothing else, Dr. Scantlebury demonstrates that it is possible to be a kind, warm and funny person and a world class surgeon in a pressure cooker environment.

This is the story of a strong woman who was raised by parents who pushed education and instilled a formidable work ethic and well-founded self-confidence. Dr. Scantlebury met barriers every step of the way, and yet she pushed on. Her willingness to admit that everything wasn’t always easy and that she didn’t always succeed at everything the first time is heartening and realistic. She is an inspiration for everyone and her honesty takes away some of the mystique of innate infallibility that some surgeons have been known to cultivate.

But wait, Dr. Scantlebury had two daughters in the middle of all this. My guess is she will never catch up on all the sleep she lost, particularly during their early years! Truthfully, the United States isn’t set up to accommodate or assist professional women who decide to have children and keep working. Nonetheless Dr. Scantlebury maintained her own course. That’s what professional working mothers do, in spite of the difficulties, and it’s about time they stop being judged adversely for it. For goodness sakes, lend a hand!

And then there is the issue of race. It wasn’t enough that Dr. Scantlebury worked tremendously hard, excelled at her profession and raised two daughter. She is black, and her book describes the pressure of dealing with racial prejudice and mean, stupid people, while at the same time raising a family and working insane hours in a high risk profession. She knows it wasn’t an even playing field — she trained with a lot of white men whose professional journeys had frequently benefited from privilege. Training to be a transplant surgeon isn’t easy for anyone, but Dr. Scantlebury’s race and sex presented inordinate and reprehensible obstacles. I’m in awe of her resilience and perseverance in sticking with it and getting where she wanted to go.

At the same time Dr. Scantlebury’s story is troubling, because she shouldn’t have had to face all these barriers. Her talent should have been recognized and nurtured from day one. Instead, she and too many women and people of color are told, explicitly or not, that they really don’t belong in their chosen profession and that they should do something that makes other people more comfortable. Whatever happened to helping children and young people develop and attain their goals? It is painful to think about all the girls and children of color who don’t push past these barriers. They lose out, and the world loses out because they may never get to contribute.

Dr. Scantlebury makes a big point of the mentors who helped her during her career and insists upon the obligation to mentor others. Throughout her career, she has reached out to help other women, and she’s clearly found it mutually beneficial. With the inspiration and concrete mentoring Dr. Scantlebury and others provide, let’s make sure women of color get the opportunities they deserve.

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The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Haddish

Tiffany Haddish has written a moving, wild and often funny memoir about her very tough upbringing and her adventures as a stand up comedian. The tone is wild and very funny. Her young life was a mess, and she had to teach herself how to lead the life she deserved on the fly. Her self-awareness of her naïveté is a constant theme of the book. She looks back with amazing insightful and humor and possesses a loony, careening sort of resilience. I love her ability to acknowledge a poor performance or whatever and move on.

The book’s serious moments are heartbreaking. Haddish tells of an unstable, abusive childhood. She acknowledges her horrible experiences and continues with her story. Epic coping skills are in play here. She only later realizes all the things that should not have happened to her. As if we needed another example, her is yet another young woman who puts up with all kind of cruelty and abuse for quite awhile before she sees her abusers for who they really are.

The story zings from here to there, but somehow Haddish finds her way to comedy — where she also meets abusive men. She also becomes successful and then has to cope with the pressures and expectations that brings. Much of it is pretty hilarious. Throughout this very good book, Haddish skillfully mixes stories of outrageous abuse with funny stories about just about everything. She also takes the time to acknowledge people who helped her along the way. This is definitely a cases of some nice, supportive people being in the right place at the right time for her. Thank goodness!

This is a very enjoyable, hilarious and thoughtful book.

A Testament of Modern Slavery by Nadia Murad, Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize

Nadia Murad has written an important and moving book, The Last Girl, and My Fight Against the Islamic State. Murad is a Yazidi. (Yazidis are a Kurdish religious minority in Iraq.) Yazidis were targeted by the Islamic State, which demolished Murad’s village and executed many of the people who lived there. Nadia Murad and other young women of her village were captured and brutally used as sex slaves. Murad managed to escape, worked to help victims and wrote this book. She is also the co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize this year, although the lack of journalistic recognition of her achievements and the Peace Prize is a sad measure of the world’s concern about sex slavery.

This is an excellent book about an horrific subject. It is difficult to read, although I found that the book’s overall design helped. First, Murad tells us about her childhood and what it was like to grow up in a large family in a Yazidi village. The second part is the hardest to bear — the war comes, Murad’s family is decimated, she is captured and she becomes a sex slave. Murad details her multiple rapes and the viciousness of her captors. This happened, and the world needs to know the details. It’s not just another news story. She is bearing witness, and we should, too. Third and finally, there is the dramatic story of her escape and new life. She has survived, and she is strong.

Reading The Last Girl is important, because it forces us to confront exactly what sex slavery means to its victims and to focus on the men who elect to engage in it. These aren’t just a few perverts. In this book alone, scores of men actively and sadistically participated. The news assures us these are not isolated incidents. Whatever the so-called religious “justification,” these men hated women and enjoyed raping them. Compounding the venality were the men and women who knew exactly what was going on and had no problem with it. Then there were the people who just turned away and pretended it wasn’t happening. Murad is infuriated with the men and women who knew and failed to do anything about it. She acknowledges that they were likely afraid, but at some level they were willing to let this happen, and she doesn’t let them off the hook.

We need to remember that sex slavery happens because the world lets it happen. Sadly there will never be a shortage of men willing to abuse women in the most appalling ways. With each insult and cruelty that passes without comment, these men are empowered. And this isn’t just a problem in other countries. Men who bully and abuse women are part of the continuum, and we need to be vigilant, speak out and take action. We honor Nadia Murad and other victims by reading their stories and doing whatever we can to stop this horrific abuse.

Bill Cunningham Makes Fashion so Much Fun!

This is a fantastic book, and I loved it!

Bill Cunningham, Jr. (1929-2016), was a remarkably talented fashion photographer for the New York Times. He was probably best known, at least recently, for the wonderful pictures he took as he rode around New York City on a bicycle, even into his eighties. His work was so fresh and wonderful that he was designated a “living landmark.”

As it happens, Cunningham led a remarkable life long before he took the photography gig. Fashion Climbing – A Memoir with Photographs is the book Cunningham wrote about his exuberant life as a young man. The book was only discovered and published after Cunningham’s death, and that somehow adds to its charm.

Fashion Climbing is much more than a fashion story. Cunningham has written a thoughtful, generous and buoyant story. He was a duck out of water as a youth in Boston, and his family was utterly unsupportive and hostile. He acknowledges the sadness of this, and then goes on to lead a fantastic life, unhampered by his frequent poverty and the decline of the millinery business. That’s right; he first became known as a highly inventive hat designer

Sometimes you read about an interesting character. You love the book but you are also really happy that never actually encountered that person, because he or she sounds distinctly unpleasant and not nice. Well, this is a different story. I would have loved to have known Bill Cunningham! His creativity and irrepressibly positive attitude are absolutely captivating. The kindness and generosity of his story just made me feel good and intrigued about what would happen next. I really hope there is an as yet undiscovered sequel for the rest of his life.

This is a great book, and I highly recommend it for everyone. This is not just for fashionistas and photography buffs.

An Iranian Woman’s Memoir and the Battle against the Compulsory Hijab

In her passionate memoir, The Wind in My Hair – My Fight for Freedom in Modern Iran, Masih Alinejad lays out her feelings about the war against women in Iran and recounts her efforts to fight it. Alinejad is a journalist, blogger and broadcaster, as well as the founder of the My Stealthy Freedom movement.

This book has many things going for it. Alinejad’s recounting of her childhood and teenage years is like nothing a Westerner could imagine. Her family is conservative; her father supports the repressive regime. She rebels. Alinejad spends some time in jail as a result of a youthful protest journal. In short order she finds she is pregnant, marries the baby’s father, has a son and then gets divorced, which results in her loss of the custody of her son. In many ways all this drama is liberating — society already regards her as a hopeless pariah, so why not speak and do what she wants to do?

Alinejad is sort of a hustler, in the best sense of the word. Lacking even a high school diploma, she quickly learns how to make a living and become a successful writer, who is basically just this side of going to prison for her provocative columns. Along the way, she meets many of the politicians who are running Iran. Ultimately, she flees Iran, one step ahead of being arrested. Landing in Britain, she is scarcely a helpless refugee. She is more of a frenetic whirlwind: she earns a university degree, she raises her son once he joins her, she writes for various outlets, blogs, does radio programs and serves as a provocative cheerleader for protest within Iran. Indeed, her story illustrates the power of Facebook and social media, in general. When no one is buying her material, she blogs and posts. Basically she drives the regime in Iran crazy.

For Alinejad, Iran’s compulsory hijab policy becomes the catalyst for protest. She lays out very clearly the ways in which Iran keeps women down and encourages women in Iran to protest. She also devotes a lot of time to tracking and reporting on the tortures and deaths of protestors, so that these people are not forgotten. She also consistently supports the choice of women like her mother who want to wear the hijab. In fact her respect for her mother and her mother’s savvy approach to life grounds Alinejad.

I loved this book, because it sets out, with all its warts and a certain amount of confusion, how this impassioned, articulate woman feels about Iran and what it is doing to its people. Alinejad clearly falls into the category of people who aren’t constrained by social norms or the perils of non-compliance. She is comfortable setting her own path. At times that may seem selfish or even annoying and there is the exile’s perennial dilemma of urging those still in her country to engage in political action and thereby endanger themselves. She is aware of these things, but moves on and sees herself as a source of inspiration for people in Iran. She misses Iran and her family and has no expectation of returning any time soon.

I recommend this book because it tells a great story and it provides a passionate primary source for what has gone on in Iran.

The World Continues to Exist Only by the Virtue of a Few Righteous People

Aharon Appelfeld’s The Story of a Life recounts his experiences as a child survivor of the Holocaust and then examines his adult reflections upon the experience and upon the family he lost. This is a beautiful book that slowly examines how the author recalls his experiences and what memory has come to mean to him.

Appelfeld’s Holocaust began at the age of 7 when he and his parents entered the ghetto in Czernowitz, Romania. His mother was murdered, and then he and his father embarked upon a long, forced march to a camp. Ultimately, Appelfeld lost his father and escaped front he camp. He somehow survived the war, made his way to Italy and then arrived in Israel, on his own at the age of 14. He stayed in Israel where he had a very successful writing career until he died earlier this year (January 14, 2018).

The Story of a Life is not Appelfeld’s first book about the Holocaust and his experiences. Post war, he was criticized for not simply laying down the facts. His somewhat mystical approach apparently drew considerable criticism. I found Appelfeld’s personal approach very moving and understandable on an emotional level. Truly there is a place for an unlimited number of approaches to the Holocaust. The Story of a Life enhances our understanding and provides a framework for how a survivor might live with the loss and how he might choose to remember it and think about it. At some level, what has happened has to encompass more than unspeakable, horrible facts and cruelties.

Several things stand out in this memoir. Appelfeld profound losses included the loss o of education. He was on his own and had no education from the time he was 7 until he landed in Israel at 14. His experiences in the early days of Israel were a mixed bag. His time in the youth village and tending to fruit trees seemed to have helped with his healing process. He also benefited form the kindness and attention of at least one established Israeli writer and a nurturing tutelage of a professor of Yiddish. On the other hand, he was alone and found the new Israelis often abrupt and uncaring.

There is little bitterness in this book. Appelfeld has moved on to where he recognizes and treasures the kindnesses, big and small, he has received in his life. According to his own survey and reckoning, “every person I knew who was saved during the war was saved solely by the grace of someone who, at a time of great danger, extended a hand to him.” Ultimately, Appelfeld feels immense gratitude for how he has been able to recover “the world I had left behind.”

Remarkably, Appelfeld and his father were reunited in Israel after the war, long after Appelfeld had thought his father was dead. Appelfeld never felt able to write about that wonderful experience, and it seems fitting for him to treasure it and hold it dear.

I can’t recommend this book enough. It is short, but deserves a slow, careful read.

In this book, Appelfeld writes about his bewilderment at the absence of his parents and the difficulties and cruelties he suffered while avoiding capture. One of his losses was that of education. His stopped at First Grade, and he got no other education until he reached Israel after the war. His struggles to learn Hebrew and write in that language

A Lucky Child — A Moving Holocaust Memoir from the Point of View of a Child Survivor

This is a particularly compelling Holocaust memoir because the author has written it as he perceived it as a child. While the author acknowledges that his memory is imperfect and that it is too late to consult the adults witnesses to his story, this book does a remarkable job of showing what it meant to somehow make it through the Holocaust as a young boy.

Thomas Buergenthal has had a significant career as the American judge on the International Court of Justice and as a professor of international law. In many ways those accomplishments pale in comparison to the remarkable story of his surviving the Holocaust as a child. In A Lucky Child — A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz as a Young Boy, Buergenthal recounts the remarkable story of how he made it through the Holocaust. Since he experienced the Holocaust as a child who was frequently on his own, Buergenthal didn’t have a sophisticated idea of what was happening or why. He just encountered events as they happened and somehow managed to survive. He went from being a likely spoiled only child in very comfortable circumstances to being hunted and ultimately separated from his parents. Fortunately he picked up just enough street smarts and made some lucky choices at the right time. And, he had some courageous adults who stepped up the plate and looked out for him at opportune times.

All in all, it is an amazing and staggering story that makes you ache for the author and his family and for all the children who weren’t so lucky.

Why Not Say What Happened, a Memoir by Ivana Lowell, is an Interesting Read

This was a strange book.  It was a gift that had been sitting on my shelf for a few years, and I finally decided to read it.  It was both repelling and fascinating.  It was also super timely!

Let’s just say that Ivana Lowell, in this book published in 2010, may have been one of the very first women to complain of and describe Harvey Weinstein’s sexually abusive behavior.  That alone makes the book memorable, but wait, there’s more!

There is really no excuse for my fascination with royalty and the aristocracy, particularly the English aristocracy.  Ivana Lowell is an aristocrat.  She was born in New York 1966, to Caroline Blackwood, who was a writer and also the daughter of Maureen, the Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava (as well as an heiress to the Guinesss fortune).  Ivana’s father was less certain as her mother either didn’t care to know or, more likely, chose to mislead her daughter about who exactly her father was.  Who does that?   That lone fact creates an absolutely appalling image of a self-absorbed, alcoholic mother who preferred her own dramas to the demands of mothering.  Ivana’s mother actually died (and had plenty of warning that she was dying) without telling her daughter who her father was.  

As an interesting literary note, one of Blackwood’s husbands was the American poet Robert Lowell, who seems to have been a loving, if distracted and unreliable, stepfather.  Ivana Lowell bears his name, but not his genes.

Ivana’s mother is a central character in this book, but this is no Mommy, Dearest.  Caroline Blackwood suffered through her own tough yet pampered childhood with a terribly self-absorbed mother and a social millieau tht wasn’t exactly child-friendly.  One wouldn’t have expected her to become mother of the year, but still!  She was intelligent; she had resources.  Sadly she seldom applied those gifts to parenting.  There was an utterly self-absorbed, twisted side to her, but the main thing that stands out is that she took no ongoing responsibility for her children.  That said, Ivana has a remarkable amount of affection for her mother.  She is apparently quite amused by her and has fond recollections of the most outrageous acting out, even as she now seems to understand how inappropriate and cruel some of it was.

Now that I’ve established that I’m not judgmental…….  Ivana seems more easily understood.  Not only did she have some spectacularly appalling parenting, but she was sexually abused and also terribly burned as a child.  (At least her mother seems to have been supportive in helping her daughter with her burns and scarring.)  It’s no surprise Ivana became an alcoholic, given her family and her circumstances.  Ivana didn’t exactly major in responsibility for much of her life.  Yet this wonderful book shows someone trying to come to terms with what she has experienced and what she hopes to be.  She acknowledges her scars and is resolved to move on.  She sees her setbacks as understandable, but remains curiously optimistic and determined to be there for her own daughter.  I ended up with a lot of respect for Ivana’s sense of humor, her humility, her painful honesty and her ultimate hopefulness that things could work out for her and her daughter.

This is an odd book, with lots of peculiar segues.  It is certainly entertaining, but it has unsuspected depth.   I’m glad I read it, and I keep thinking about it.

The Song and the Silence — A Strong Account of Looking for Roots and Belonging — by Yvette Johnson

Yvette Johnson has written a brave and vivid account of her own personal struggles growing up as the African-American daughter of a professional football player and a fierce mother.  In The Song and the Silence —  A Story about Family, Race, and What Was Revealed in a Small Town in the Mississippi Delta While Searching for Booker Writght, Johnson analyzes her own substantial problems and conflicts.  She didn’t get what she wanted or thought she needed from her parents and found herself adrift.  She also struggles with mental illness.  But fortunately, curiosity and a great deal of personal strength prevail.  Johnson starts to dig into the remarkable story of her maternal grandfather, Booker Wright, who was the subject of a short but epic television documentary filmed in Greenwood, Mississippi, in the 1960’s.  Understanding what her grandfather’s world was like in the Jim Crow South leads Johnson to keep investigating.  Booker Wright may have been an icon, but he also led a very complicated personal life.  He did some fine things for the community and he spoke out bravely on television, but he also inspired alot of resentment within his community.

Johnson has written a great story in and of itself.  The writing is clear and compelling.  What makes this a great book is the author’s determination to keep working at unraveling the past and acquiring a better understanding of what happened and how the tragic effects have never completely gone away.  She forces herself to dig into the past, even when it tells her things she would rather not know.  She develops and shares a profound appreciation for just how horribly, horribly hard it was to grow up in the Jim Crow South and how those scars shaped people such as her emotionally remote mother.  This information is not obtained in one fell swoop.  Johnson’s patience in visiting repeatedly and lingering in Greenwood during some hot summer months yields a far greater understanding than a more sharply focused investigation might have done.

Determined not to settle for the hand she has been dealt, Johnson ends her book with some sound and encouraging recommendations for people struggling with mental illness.  I’m inevitably inspired by people who are candidly struggling with their own problems and still reaching back to help and inspire others.

I strongly recommend this book.  It goes beyond what I’d expected.

Gweilo – A Memoir of a Hong Kong Childhood

Martin Booth has written a marvelous memoir about moving to Hong Kong and living there as a young boy in the early 1950’s.  Booth, an important British author, was moved to write Gweilo – A Memoir of a Hong Kong Childhood after he was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2004.  The result of this last literary effort is a warm, amazing tale where Booth’s mother proves to be a major heroine and Martin emerges as someone we would all like to know.

In 1952, Booth’s father was posted to Hong Kong as a civilian employee of the British Navy.  As is sometimes sadly the case, Booth Senior’s importance to the Empire was in inverse proportion to his self-importance, and he was content to leave Martin, his only child, in an English boarding school.  Fortunately Booth’s mother was having none of that and insisted on bringing their son with them to Hong Kong.   And so in 1952 Martin Booth left an impoverished England, still struggling with post-war privation, and travelled to Hong Kong where he and his family lived for three years.  Martin and his mother loved exotic Hong Kong for all the reasons his literally gin-swilling father detested it.  Indeed the Booth family can be seen as a microcosm of the struggle between the old guard determination to hang on to the vestiges of the British Empire and the contrasting determination of a new generation eager explore new things and embrace variety and change.  

Martin was clearly his mother’s child, and remained resentful of his father for all sort of reasons.  The unhappiness of his parents’ marriage provides a sad back drop to what is otherwise a thrilling story of what happens when a seven year old boy is given license to explore an exotic city.  Allowing a seven year old child free rein to explore a new city, let along Hong Kong, on his own is unimaginable today, but that is what Martin got to do.  While Martin and his mother certainly did some exploring together, Martin’s independent solo forays provide the most amazing and exciting adventures in the book.  Happily Martin emerged from these adventures unharmed.  He also developed a deep empathy, understanding and love for Hong Kong.  His freedom enabled him to poke around, ask questions and learn to speak some rudimentary Chinese.  Martin encountered horrific poverty and encountered dangerous snakes and some pretty shady people, but he had a blast and learned a lot.  Indeed,  I found Martin’s adventures in the 1950’s to be considerably more thrilling and informative than my own trip to Hong Kong this past August.  Among other things this book shows what Hong Kong has lost, both good and bad.  

Martin’s mother deserves a major shout out.  Her openness and spirit of adventure educated and inspired her son to explore the city and its neighborhoods on his own.  Martin Booth learned a lot from watching his mother.  Observing how she coped with difficulties gave him some useful tools when he met his own difficulties.  Today this remarkable woman would undoubtedly be charged with child neglect, but this was the 1950’s, when many of us recall a lot more childhood freedom to roam and fend for ourselves than his common today.  Still, Martin’s mother comes across as uniquely permissive when it comes to letting her young son explore Hong Kong on his own.

The book ends when the family sails back to England after their three years in Hong Kong, but fortunately Booth got to return to Hong Kong a few years later.  I was so happy he got to return.

I loved this book.  It is a warm remembrance of a few years of childhood in exotic Hong Kong.