Robert Capa’s Slightly out of Focus: A Captivating Photographer’s Memoir of World War II

Robert Capa’s Slightly Out of Focus is absolutely one of the best war memoirs I’ve ever read. Capa, was born in Hungary in 1913 and then killed by stepping on a mine in Vietnam in 1954. In between, he made a career as a war photographer. Slightly Out of Focus covers Capa’s experiences before and during World War II. As an Hungarian Jew, he was basically stateless, but nonetheless managed to get to the United States and then got an American magazine to send him to London to photograph the war. Capa was in North Africa and Italy, and then landed with the first troops in Normandy on D Day. His book has astonishing photographs, but it also recounts his adventures. Capa makes cutting through all the American and British red tape to get to the war zones sound almost as daunting as the War itself. As if his own story weren’t amazing enough, Capa’s tales include cameos by Ernest Hemingway, and Ernie Pyle, among others. Robert Capa is an amazing raconteur who writes with tremendous brio, but he also zeroes in on the terrors of the war and demonstrates a profound understanding of the horror and waste. You really need to read this book.

Incidentally Robert Capa was one of the people featured in Katie Marton’s 2006, The Great Escape — Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World, which is another great book.

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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.

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 Clancys of Queens — A Beguiling Memoir

I loved everything about The Clancys of Queens, Tara Clancy’s warm and funny memoir of growing up in Brooklyn and Queens as the only child of a divorced Italian mother and Irish father.  As a child Tara seems to have spent more time figuring out how to stir things up than she did pondering her unusual family circumstances.  She doesn’t seem to have been a sad or particularly introspective child.  Instead, she happily careened around her family’s various homes and hangouts.   Presumably not everyone  appreciated some of her more daredevil efforts, but the book’s prevailing theme is of a group of adults who loved her, raised her, accepted her quirks and tried to help her find her way.  Oddly none of these otherwise caring people seems to have been particularly focused on her formal education.  Clancy clearly picked up a great deal just from hanging around adults, but she also enjoyed a great deal of freedom.  Only in her late teens did she stumble upon a copy of King Lear and get excited about literature and interested in higher education.  At that point, the same extended family that had paid little attention to her academics stepped up to the plate and helped her with college expenses.

This book is a wise, funny and non-mushy book.  I really recommend it.

A Family’s Holocaust Memoir – Agata Tuszyska’s Family History of Fear

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Agata Tuszynska has written a remarkable family memoir, Family History of Fear, A Memoir.   Tuszynska is a Polish poet and writer who tries to find out what happened to her family, both before and after the Holocaust.   As the daughter of a survivor, she has some family assistance with her search, but in the end there is a lot she cannot know.  The author’s efforts to uncover the past are founded on one basic story.  Her grandmother nearly survived, but died just when she had reason to feel she might be safe.  Despite her own death, the grandmother managed save to her daughter, the author’s mother.

For Polish Jews,  it wasn’t enough to to survive the Holocaust.  Pogroms survived World War II, and then Poland had its own anti-Semitic purge in the late 60’s.  A surprising number of the author’s relatives survived and elected to remain in Poland to work with the new Communist regime.  The decision to stay despite having lost so many family members and barely escaping death themselves during the war years is bewildering.  Poland may have been their home, but it never felt really safe.   

This isn’t a book where the author’s story is neatly sewn up.  There are stray ends and elderly relatives who either don’t know much or have chosen to forget.  It isn’t all the surprising that Tusznska’s family history is difficult to pin down, because so much was lost during the war, and this was not a cohesive family unit.  Episodic poverty and the near-constant threats to their security, combined with a series of deaths, divorces, second marriages and various alliances depict a family under considerable stress.  At times I found it difficult to keep all the aunts and cousins straight, but that didn’t detract from the author’s story.   To the contrary, this somewhat messy family history where not all relatives are forthcoming about the past and where everyone didn’t always behave all that well rings very true.  At some level the people who survived are very ordinary.  They seem to go about their lives without a lot of reflection about their extraordinary experiences.

In addition to being a wonderful family saga, Family History of Fear also adds to what we know about the Holocause and how some people managed to survive, as a result of bravery and luck, was well as the kindness of those who chose to help.   

 

 

Detroit Hustle – An Urban Rehab Odyssey

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Amy Haimerl’s Detroit Hustle – A Memoir of Love, Life & Home is a conflicted book.  Haimerl, a journalist who was covering Detroit for Crain’s Detroit Business during Detroit’s protracted bankruptcy, and her husband end up in Detroit.  They can’t afford Brooklyn and are oddly taken by the challenge of Detroit.  With more guts than common sense, they pay cash for a crumbling house lacking water, power and windows, among other things.

Their aim to support a critically ill city is admirable, but they land in a mass of contradictions.  For lots of reasons, buying and rehabbing houses in Detroit, at least at the time of Haimerl’s book, seems impossible for Detroit’s poor residents.  As outsiders, with access to cash, Haimerl and her husband can afford to buy a formerly gracious house and fix it up right.  They recognize that they are putting more into the house than they are ever likely to recoup, but they fall in love with the process, and are determined to do the job “right,” which in their case means hiring contractors and spending a fortune.  On top of all the economic woes, Detroit has an historical commission, so the financial outlay is just crippling.  Haimerl and her husband end up with a beautifully restored home in a neighborhood that is increasingly gentrified, and thus increasingly unaffordable for the poor.

The book is well written and keeps your interest, even if you have absolutely no interest in inserting yourself into a local bar scene or living in a construction site for years while confronting major panic about your ability to pay for it.  The challenge, as Haimerl recognizes it, is that she and her husband are part of a movement that will make Detroit more beautiful and probably more economically sound, but it is sort of a yuppie fantasy.  No matter how much they try to patronize local establishments that predate their arrival, Haimerl and her husband are inevitably part of a recovery that will mostly benefit the middle and upper classes, with the poor being left behind.  In the end, this is a bittersweet book that raises lots of questions, but I have to admire the effort Haimerl and her husband make to do the right thing and to be sensitive to some of the less positive effects of their settling in Detroit.