Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter - Review

I'm not a Kennedy historian.  I've never read a book or seen any documentaries about the Kennedy family.  Everything I'd known came from pop culture references.  When I heard about Rosemary Kennedy's tragic story, however, I knew it was something I wanted to delve into.

Rosemary Kennedy was the third child and eldest daughter of Joe and Rose Kennedy.  This book alludes to the fact that her intellectual disabilities may be attributed to a mishap at birth.  The nurse essentially stalled her delivery so that the doctor could be there.  I think this resulted in a lack of oxygen that permanently damaged her.

This part of Rosemary's story is tragic enough but that was just the beginning.  Due to the era, people with intellectual disabilities weren't accepted by society; in fact, they were shunned and often times, sent away to institutions far away from their families.  These institutions were not necessarily known for providing loving or adequate care either. Fortunately, Rosemary's family didn't do that.  They did, however, try their darnedest to hide that there was anything different about Rosemary.  Despite knowing that she was behind her peers and siblings, her parents still held her to the same high standards.  She faced the same pressure to overachieve and I think that was overwhelming.

One of her biggest obstacles was change.  She floundered and acted out when her routine was destabilized.  Despite knowing this, her parents constantly shuttled her from one educational (mostly Catholic) institution to another.  The reason they had to do this is because they would never fully disclose Rosemary's issues and needs.   Often times, these institutions weren't prepared or equipped to help her so they had no choice but to recommend she go somewhere more suitable.

When Rosemary finally found a caring and inclusive environment, like her school in England when Joe Kennedy was the U.S. Ambassador to London, she had to leave because of the onset of World War II.  It wasn't long after that, when she was in her early to mid 20s, that her temperament started to become unmanageable for the family and her new caretakers back in the U.S.  As a result, her father chose an extreme and intrepid procedure at that time - a lobotomy - to fix Rosemary's ills.

I know his intentions were good but you know what they say about good intentions, right? Even in its infancy, the American Medical Association (AMA) said the procedure was dangerous and that the cons far outweighed the pros.  The procedure destroyed any progress Rosemary had made in her lifetime up until that point (4th grade reading and writing level).  She was left immobile and mute.

It was at that point that her parents finally did what many parents at that time did; they sent her away.  I feel like this had more to do with not wanting to face their guilt then it did with wanting to help her.  She languished at a facility that didn't rehabilitate her but merely kept her alive for ten years.  It wasn't until later that she was relocated to an appropriately equipped facility in Wisconsin where she spent the remainder of her life being cared for by nuns.

Her father only visited her once in Wisconsin, I believe, and her mother didn't see her until much later.  Apparently, Rosemary never forgot her mother's abandonment.  She rejected her and reacted angrily when she came to visit.  She was also cold toward her mother when it was arranged that she would visit her family on the East Coast twice a year.  I can't say I blame her.

I didn't actually intend to sum up the whole story but I guess I did.  Oops!  It was such an interesting and sad story to read.  I think Rosemary was a beautiful person and I wish her parents had never authorized a lobotomy.  It's also amazing to think that as tragic as Rosemary's experience was, there had to be worse experiences.  At least she had the privilege of coming from a wealthy family who attempted to make her life easier (and theirs, at the same time).

I can't help but feel a lot of bitterness toward Joe and Rose Kennedy.  I know they were a product of their times but it's hard to not feel anger knowing that their motivations were also very selfish.  They were building a political empire and did everything they could to protect it, even if it was at the expense of their daughter.  Reading passages from letters and notes that Joe and Rose wrote, it's hard to ignore that Rosemary was a burden to them and a hurdle to their race to the top.  It disgusted me to read that Rose said something along the lines of, why did God take three of my able-bodied sons (referencing Joe Jr., JFK, and Bobby) and leave me with a deficient daughter?

I try to focus on the fact that she had a happy existence with the nuns who cared for her in her later years and a wonderful relationship with her sister Eunice and Eunice's family.        

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Rainbow Comes and Goes - Review

This was a quick and easy read.  I also enjoyed the banter between mother and son (the book is a year-long series of their email conversations) and getting a glimpse into their dynamic and relationship.    

I've always been a fan of Anderson Cooper so I was really interested to read The Rainbow Comes and Goes when I saw him making the talk show rounds to promote it.  From time to time I would forget that his mother came from one of the most prominent and famous American families.  Unlike many children of wealth, Anderson Cooper has chosen to work for his fame/standing rather than resting on his laurels.  I respect Gloria Vanderbilt tremendously, too, for making it known early on that her children would not be trust fund babies.  I think it was a brave, selfless, and wise move on her part.

Gloria Vanderbilt has led and continues to lead a very interesting life with many layers.  She had a very unconventional childhood that set the stage for an unconventional adulthood.  I learned a lot about Gloria's life that I hadn't known previously (I won't give away all the juicy details) and while there were moments where I was frustrated with impulsive and bad decisions she made, I also came away with a lot of admiration for her tenacity to endure. Gloria experienced a lot of loss and turmoil in her life and she always kept moving forward. On top of that, she moved forward not begrudgingly or with bitterness, but with a renewed sense of hope.

I highly recommend it if you're a fan of Anderson Cooper or his mom or both or need a mood boost.  When I finished it I felt like I was on a high.

Friday, April 29, 2016

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks - Review

I've been wanting to read this book forever!  I've had it on my kindle for years and for whatever reason it kept getting passed over.  Unfortunately, I feel like what I did to this book, forgetting and neglecting it for years, is what actually happened and continues to happen to the memory of Henrietta Lacks and of course, her descendants.

What an important story.  Henrietta Lacks was a beautiful woman who was the victim of a system that didn't view or treat her as an equal member of society because of her race.  But as the reader learns, no one has the rights to their tissues.  It's true that now patients have to at least provide "informed consent" but Henrietta didn't even have that option.  She wasn't asked or consulted, but a piece of her cervical cancer tumor was cut from her body and has been used by scientists ever since.  She was the first ever example of "immortal cells", meaning her cells didn't die.  They kept on multiplying.  They've been at the forefront of many medical discoveries, including the vaccine for polio.  They've been in space and they're used in laboratories all over the world.

What I love about this book is that in addition to educating the reader about the science and importance of cells, it illuminates that the cells were once part of a PERSON, a woman who had five children, who she loved very much.  She knew she was dying and she wanted them to have the best care possible.  Unfortunately, they all had a very difficult childhood. Tragically, her eldest daughter, Elsie, was forgotten in an institution for the mentally ill/disabled and died not long after her mother.  Her other children were raised in a neglectful and abusive household until they were saved by their eldest brother and his wife.

These children grew up into adults who were angry at the way that their mother was treated and how they were treated, as inconsequential.  Companies who mass-produce and transport HeLa cells, as they're called, make millions (maybe billions) off their mother but they live in poverty.  Where is the justice or fairness in that?

Something that wasn't explicitly stated in the book but I surmised on my own is that Henrietta didn't have to die the way she did.  Her cervical cancer came about as a result of the HPV virus.  Well, as we know, HPV is sexually transmitted.  It was common knowledge that Henrietta's husband was an indiscriminate cheater and gave her any number of STDs, including syphilis.  That bastard killed his wife because in addition to not being able to keep it in his pants, he couldn't be bothered to wear a condom.  That makes me so angry!  She was 31 when she died.

Needless to say, reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was an amazing but often very sad journey.  She deserved better and her family members deserve better, too.  So much of the book is the author trying to win over Henrietta's adult children to trust her enough to tell their mother's story.  Not surprisingly, they had a very difficult time giving her their trust and often, they would get spooked and take it back.  It's not as though Johns Hopkins (the hospital that treated their mother and cut from her tumor) made it easy for them to trust medical scientists or white people, for that matter.

I definitely recommend it.  It's an important read and it brings up many ethical questions. Most significantly, it sheds light on the woman, Henrietta Lacks, behind the cells.        

Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Picture of Dorian Gray - Review

Ugh.  What can I say about The Picture of Dorian Gray?  It took me over a month to read a 165-page book.  It was a painful and slow process.  I ended up skimming the last thirty pages.

I found a lot of the language to be overwrought and gratuitous.  I liked the overall concept but I didn't enjoy the process to get there or the characters or the "story", which really isn't a story.  It's more or less a cautionary tale on narcissism/vanity.

Dorian Gray would've really liked Facebook.  He would've been posting selfies all the live long day.

Needless to say, I didn't enjoy it but now I can mark it off my list.  On to the next!

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Kind Worth Killing - Review

The Kind Worth Killing is in the same vein as Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train.  Gone Girl is by the far the most psychologically bizarre and disturbed whereas the female protagonist in The Girl on the Train is mostly pathetic.  I would classify the lead in The Kind Worth Killing, Lily Kintner, as a sociopath.  I'm not really giving anything away because you learn about her justifications for killing pretty early on.  When I described the plot to my husband he said it made him think of Dexter (the book series turned Showtime show) and it was a good comparison.  I can't say I totally disagree with her reasons for killing - she generally kills those who are morally corrupt and mostly bad people.  That being said it's not for mortals to judge who is good or bad.  That's the main flaw in her system.  

I was instantly hooked and drawn in by the characters and the device of switching off voices every chapter.  The excitement kept building and building and I got more and more invested in finding out how it was all going to end.  Unfortunately, that was the most disappointing part of the experience.  I loved the journey but once I reached the destination I was surprised at how anticlimactic it felt.  I won't give anything away but it did feel abrupt and in a way, unsatisfying.

I'd still recommend the book because it was a mostly enjoyable experience.  It's not even that the ending was "bad", it just wasn't what I was expecting for such a suspenseful story.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Hoda Kotb Book Signing

It's neat but a year after attending a book review/presentation by one author I was lucky enough to attend a book signing by Hoda Kotb at my alma mater.

It was a wonderful experience.  She's such a positive and inspirational force.  She didn't really promote her book per se, which I liked, but she did relay some of her life lessons that tie into the theme of her book, Where We Belong.

She talked about graduating from college (Virginia Tech) and immediately lining up a job interview in Richmond, VA.  She arrived with her tape and plotted out where she was going to sit and who she was going to date, without any thought of being rejected.  Well, she was. She took a ten-day road trip all around the southern United States to be rejected a whooping 27 times!  Then, in a God-wink kind of moment, she got lost in Greenville, Mississippi on her way back home.  She saw a literal sign advertising a local CBS station and thought, well, I'll go in and get rejected, but at least I'll leave with a map.  As fortune would have it, she was not rejected but in fact, embraced and hired.  She told us that you only need one person to like you and give you a chance and obviously, you can't give up until you find that person.

It was a great story of perseverance and determination.  And she also relayed how fear inspired the biggest risks in her life and how they paid off.  She said she'd hang back and not really go for things but after surviving a divorce and breast cancer she realized she had nothing to be afraid of anymore.  It was at that low point in her life that she decided to lobby for herself to co-host the fourth hour of the Today Show.  As we know, she got the job and she and Kathie Lee have been a spectacular team ever since.  They're a national treasure and they've been parodied on SNL many times - a true testament to their omnipresence in pop culture.

I got to interact with her very briefly while she was signing my book.  I'm very shy around celebrities but I was able to muster out a, "I love your positive energy."  Her smile is infectious and she radiates sunshine.  I was thrilled when she said I was "adorable".

Where We Belong is not specifically about Hoda but it's a collection of inspirational stories. I look forward to reading through it and I hope you will too!  


Sunday, December 13, 2015

2015 in Review/2016 Goals

It's been another bad year for reading but not for lack of trying.

In the past several months I've started and stopped at least three books.  The books I couldn't get through were a murder mystery my grandmother sent to me, a non-fiction about the birth of forensic science, and a fluff fiction about snooty rich Asians.  I got a decent way into the latter two books but finally quit because I couldn't stretch out my interest any longer. I tried as long as I did because I paid for both.  Oh well.  

I just started A Brief History of Seven Killings and so far, it's promising.  It doesn't hurt that a) I saw the author present the book almost a year ago and b) he just won the Man Booker Prize for fiction.  It's a long read so I doubt I'll finish it before the year is out.  I have the hard copy but boy do I wish I had the ebook because it's heavy to lift over my head while I'm lying down in bed.  I've almost dropped the book on myself a few times.  Ha.  

I guess my goal for 2016 is to read more books than I did this year but it really depends on what strikes my fancy and holds my interest.  I definitely feel like I need more reading in my life.  The Internet and TV have been too dominant as my main sources of entertainment. Reading is good for the mind and soul.  I don't know if the Internet and TV help as much as they hurt the mind and soul.  (I feel like I've said this before...)

I'd say my favorite reads of the year were The Girl on the Train and Big Little Lies.  They both grabbed and held my interest and I was able to plough through them quickly.  While the characters were flawed and unlikable in The Girl on the Train, I found the narrative to be really compelling.  Big Little Lies had its serious moments but I also really enjoyed its lighter side and there were likable/relatable characters.

ETA: I quit.  I'm not going to finish A Brief History of Seven Killings.  Slogging through the patois requires too much effort.  I might go back to it one day (???) but I'm not betting on it.

Also, I did actually achieve my goal for this year.  I think I set out to read five books and I accomplished that plus some.  This year instead of putting the pressure of a number out there I'm going to set a goal to TRY to read these specific titles that have been on my list for a while:

War and Peace
The Picture of Dorian Gray
The Handmaid's Tale
A Room with a View
Little Women
No Name
Kolyma Tales

We shall see how I do!