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.

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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.

The Seven Sisters in the late ’50’s

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It is both comforting and realistic to have a college memoir written by someone who wasn’t all together comfortable with college.  In Ivy Days: Making My Way Out East, Susan Allen Toth writes about her days at Smith.  Toth, then called Susan Allen, left Ames, Iowa, to attend Smith College in 1957.  She achieved great academic success there, but she didn’t always love it.  Smith wasn’t warm and fuzzy, and Toth was on a scholarship at a time when Smith apparently housed all the scholarship kids together.  (That wasn’t necessarily unusual at the time.)

Toth wasn’t particularly comfortable at Smith.  Upon arrival she was miserably homesick and, as a poor scholarship student, painfully aware that her clothes weren’t up to snuff.  She felt heavy pressure to be happy and love it, which is a tall order for many college freshmen.  She had enjoyed great academic success in order to get admitted to Smith, and at times she seemed almost overwhelmed by her own expectations of success.  She had got what she wanted when she was admitted to Smith, but actually being there wasn’t all that amazing.

There were no major dramas to overcome, but there was a lot of hard work.  Massive amounts of studying and an almost total emphasis on academics are at the core of this thoughtful memoir.  The all-women environment was also key to Toth’s experience.    Lots of her classmates were dating and had serious boyfriends, but Toth kind of drifted in and out of it.  Romance wasn’t a vital component or measuring stick for her college experience.  Toth’s depiction of the dorm environment and the women around her ring very true.  There is very much a sense that this is how hard working, motivated women interact when there are no men around.

Toth’s book is written from a distance of about 15 years and after a PhD and a divorce.  She still doesn’t feel like a success, but she has gained perspective and an academic career.  Her reflections about her time at Smith should give lots of college students  some reassuring perspective that it is okay to feel insecure, pressured and not particularly happy as a college freshman.

I really liked this book, which had been sitting on my “to be read” shelf for years.

Harrowing Tale of the Cambodian Genocide as Told by a Child Survivor

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At times all of the mass murder and genocide across the globe can be numbing.  You know it is happening and you see the awful photos, but there is just so much of it that it can seem remote and, God forbid, routine.  Well, Loung Ung’s 2000 memoir of her childhood under the Khmer Rouge brings it home.  First  They Killed My Father – A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, tells a harrowing tale of exile, murder and overwhelming hunger as seen through the eyes of a privileged middle class five year old.

This child knows what she had and has absolutely no idea why she has been  abruptly pulled from her comfortable life in Phnom Penh and, together with her family, cast into a hostile rural environment. Ung survives, but as the title of her book suggests, not all of her family was so lucky.   The mindless beatings and killings all occur in a numbing environment of hunger and fear.  No one trusts anyone; the author and her siblings are told they must hide their Chinese ancestry and middle class roots.  It is actually pretty amazing that the kids were able to follow these life-saving directions.  They showed a lot of discipline and seemed to have entered into survival mode.

Fortunately, Ung managed to get out.  After tough times in a Thai refugee camp, she immigrated to the United States with one of her brothers.  She went on to an American high school and college and ended up writing at least two books and working with the Campaign for a Landmine Free World.

I Googled Ung to see what she has been up to since writing this book and learned that she has prompted some controversy within the Cambodian community.  In particular, some have questioned whether Ung could have called the details of her childhood trauma so specifically, given that she was so young, only five years old, when the nightmare began.  Given that she wasn’t in a position to write it all down, it seems entirely plausible that her youth and the passage of time may have affected some of the specifics of her recollections.  Of course the passage of time affects the recollections of many of us.

Such controversies do not blunt the impact of this book.  Ung’s story hits you right in the face and breaks your heart.  This is what genocide felt like to a young child.  She may not have focused on the politics  behind the Khmer Rouge’s absurd cruelty and meglomania, but she saw the lunacy behind the terror.  People turned on each other with unimaginable viciousness, and mass murder and loss were the result.  At some level the politics really didn’t matter.

 

 

 

Moving Memoir of Growing Up in Colonial Kenya During the Mau Mau Revolt

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In the House of the Interpreter is a beautiful coming of age memoir by Ngugi Wa Thiong’O, a famous Kenyan novelist, poet, playwright and critic.  Although the book describes only a brief period in the author’s life, it does an outstanding job of tracking his intellectual development and showing how he came to view himself in his evolving society.  The drama of the story is greatly enhanced by the fact that it is set during a violent, fascinating period, the mid 1950’s when the Mau Mau Revolt rocked the British Empire’s final days of colonial rule of Kenya.

Despite extreme poverty and an extremely volatile political environment, the teenaged author managed to leave his village and attend an African boarding school.  It was a tough school, run by an Englishman who saw his mission in life as serving Christ and educating African youth.  Fortuitously, the school provided Ngugi with a  remarkable haven from outside violence and profoundly affected and nourished his intellectual development.  An avid and determined scholar, even as a teenager, Ngugi actively and consciously engaged with others, both within and without the school’s community during this tremendously tumultuous time.

In piercing contrast, outside the school’s grounds, Kenya was in turmoil.  England was taking increasingly brutal measures to hold on to its colony in the face of the MauMau Revolt.  Though not himself overtly political,  Ngugi faced all sort of difficulties and repeated corruption just getting to and from school.  His brother, who was part of the Mau Mau forces was in hiding andresistance was ultimately imprisoned.  Ngugi’s own  efforts to stay away from the fray were unsuccessful, and he was swept up in the political mess.

I highly recommend this book, which does a remarkable job of charting a budding author’s awareness of his country’s struggle for independence even as he deals with his own struggles to get an education and survive.

The Immigrant Experience — Growing Up Asian American

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Growing up Asian American – Stories of Childhood, Adolescence and Coming of Age in America from the 1800s to the 1990s,  edited and with an introduction by Maria Hong, is a collection of 33 pieces, both fiction and non-fiction, about the Asian American immigrant experience in America.   The stories share many themes  —  concerns about parents’ expectations, awareness that parents don’t quite fit in or don’t quite get what is going on. and then the writers’ own concerns about how to get along.  A number of the writers feel considerable stress between their families’ insular worlds and their own experiences in American schools and communities.  There are also cringing moments when the writers and their families face discrimination, both blatant and (hopefully) unintended.  These stories don’t have many happy, cohesive families.  Instead, most of the writers come across as loners who have been thrust into an alien environment without the proper tools for survival.

This book is highly recommended.  The sheer volume (33) of the pieces underscores the fact that, regardless of immigration status or economic circumstances, it can be really tough to move to this country and that it can be uniquely traumatic for children.

Traveling and Reflecting with Gloria Steinem

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Gloria Steinem’s new memoir, My Life on the Road, is just a gift.  This is a person I would so like to know.  Steinem has always projected a cool and confident mystique  —  she is thoughtful, rational and stratgic.  Yet it is clear from her stories that she had a very challenging, impoverished and unsettled childhood.  While her parents’ cross-country wandering may have been the source of  Steinem’s love of travel, it is also true that they provided her with precious little security and nothing came easy for her.  Certainly there was nothing inevitable about Steinem’s success.

This book is a collection of life stories and travel writing.  It moves gracefully among autobiographical stories and an eclectic mix of travel encounters and gives a good sense of how Steinem evolved into a feminist organizer.  She is an eager and avid traveler and comes across as a low-maintenance companion.  Steinem doesn’t just see new places  —  she relishes new experiences and new people.   All sorts of people come up do her and share their own stories, and she loves it.  She chides herself for sometimes making unfounded assumptions about people and relishes the surprises people present to her.

This is by no means a self-help book, but it is certainly inspirational.  I hope I will think of Steinem the next time I am confronted with travel snafus or have the opportunity to meet new people.  Say yes to the trip, and never assume.  More importantly, it is always the right thing to try to help people, to do whatever needs to be down and to be kind.

It would be nice if the women’s movement had succeeded, such that this book could be an anachronism.  Sadly, it remains terribly relevant.  The struggle continues, and we all need to try harder to advance equal rights for all women.

This is a great book.  Please read it!

A Man Without Breath — An Excellent Bernie Gunther Novel

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I am a big fan of Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series, and A Man Without Breath is an excellent addition to the series.  Bernie Gunther would like to be an ordinary criminal investigator, but the Nazi regime and World War II make that impossible.  No one is untainted in Bernie Gunther’s world, but Philip Kerr still manages to present Gunther as a sympathetic character  —  hard-bitten with just a little bit of idealism left in him.  Humphrey Bogart would have played him very well.

This time Gunther finds himself in on the Eastern Front on an errand for Joseph Goebbels.  It is the Spring of 1943, and a lot of Germans have begun to realize the war may not end well for them.  Their frantic maneuvering doesn’t preclude still more atrocities, but it does muddy the waters for Gunther, who would really just like to solve his crimes and go home to Berlin.  There is a plethora of interesting historical detail, particularly with respect to the NKVD’s own atrocities and the growing interest on the part of certain aristocrats in assassinating Hitler.  It is a grim story, but the characters, plot and setting are really interesting.  Kerr adds some Casablanca-like repartee, a little romance and an excellent sense of the absurd to make this a really good novel.

An Amazing First Person Account of the French Resistance

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Agnes Humbert’s Resistance  —  A Woman’s Journal of Struggle and Defiance in Occupied France is simply a wonderful book.  Humbert was an art historian in her forties when the Germans occupied Paris in 1940.  She immediately located fellow patriots and recklessly threw herself into acts of resistance.  Although her activities were largely confined to spreading dissident literature, Humbert and the other members of her group were soon betrayed and savagely punished.  Many of the men were executed, while Humbert ended up with a five year prison sentence, most of which was spent under appalling conditions in a miserable assortment of German prisons and labor camps.

Humbert kept a diary as long as she was able.  When that became impossible, she held on to her memories.  Once the war ended, she filled in the enormous gaps of her miserable incarcerations in diary-like fashion.  This approach makes her book extremely compelling because the tortures and privations she suffers are set forth in real time.  Humbert was imprisoned with women from all over Europe and who had been imprisoned for all sorts of reasons, ranging from prostitution and murder to black market violations, political dissent and simply being the wrong nationality or political party at the wrong time.  She was starved and beaten and phenomenally lucky to survive .

The manner in which Humbert survived is the genius of this book.  She was blessed with courage, maturity and no fatal illnesses, and that was all extremely important.  But her real strength lay in remaining optimistic and seeking friendship wherever she went.  She always managed to find at least one friend with a similar perspective who could always manage to find the humor in something.  The companionship of her fellow prisoners gave Humbert strength throughout her ordeal.  Humbert was far less reckless in prison than she had been in the Resistance, but she nonetheless seized opportunities to sabotage the goods she was forced to make for the German war machine.  She was really annoyed when she was placed in a factory where she couldn’t figure out how to sabotage the goods.

Once she was freed from prison by the advance of the Allies, Humbert lost no time in teaming up with like-minded colleagues and organizing the ensuing chaos.  She grasped political realities and helped restore order and human services, even as she helped compile the record of war crimes she provided to the Americans.

This is an heroic story, but it is not told in a conceited fashion.  So much of this book is written about how “we,” as opposed to “I,” suffered and about the courage and kindnesses of other prisoners and even a few of the guards.   Humbert comes across as a rather unremarkable individual who drew on her personality and her convictions to become a hero.  This is a unique and valuable first person account of a savage time and some very brave people.   I strongly recommend this book!