Saturday, September 3, 2016

A Night to Remember - Review

A Night to Remember is considered to be the most comprehensive history of the sinking of the Titanic.  It's the book James Cameron, of the famed movie, read and was inspired by.

This book was so interesting as it provided a play-by-play of the events that night from seconds before the collision with the iceberg to the eventual rescue of the survivors by the Carpathia, another passenger ship.  She hauled ass to close a four hour distance to reach the Titanic's location.  The Californian, only ten miles away, did nothing.

I wanted so much more information but the reality is that the real story of what happened to those who perished, died with them.  The rest of the story had to be pieced together by survivor accounts and we all know how reliable first-hand accounts can be.  Walter Lord, the author, even talked about that and how so many of the stories that first emerged were fabricated and later earned legend status.

What we know happened is that every thing that could go wrong, went wrong.  The Titanic received several, I think, five, ice warnings throughout the day/evening so she should've been prepared for icebergs and perhaps, avoided the ice field altogether like the Californian, a neighboring vessel.  They actually "parked" their ship and sent out an ice warning not forty-five minutes prior to the Titanic's collision with an iceberg.

The telegraph system was relatively new at the time so it wasn't an exact science nor were all the kinks worked out.  The Titanic ignored the Californian's warning because it was inundated with other messages.  Later, when the Titanic tried to message the Californian for help, its telegraphist had gone to bed.  When the Titanic started to set off rockets, the Californian had no idea what to make of it and didn't dream that they were distress signals.

I feel like the Titanic's famed tagline "unsinkable" really hurt it.  No one believed it could sink, including the passengers on board, while it was sinking.  Even the ships contacted to rescue it could hardly believe that they were needed.  Fortunately, the Carpathia did everything in its power.  It was too late, but they didn't know that the Titanic had sunk until they encountered the survivors in their lifeboats.  They were prepared and ready to pick up all passengers.

It's also difficult to comprehend that the Titanic only had enough lifeboats for a third of its passengers.  Call it hubris for thinking she could never sink.  Even when the crew was filling up the lifeboats, several boats left half full.  They said women and children first and due to the amount of time it took to convince wives to leave their husbands behind, the crew dropped many lifeboats that weren't filled to capacity.  So not only did they know that everyone couldn't be saved to start with, they STILL didn't save as many people as they could have.  I think at that point, they should've allowed men to board with their wives.  I mean, if people were resisting they should've moved on to passengers who were willing - women OR men.  There's almost no point in talking about third class because we all know they got the shaft.

And then, it just broke my heart to think of all the survivors treading icy water who weren't rescued because given the option, many lifeboat passengers resisted turning back.  Those poor people in the water cried for help and as we know, the majority of them, with the exception of a lucky few who were picked up, died of hypothermia.  I just find it hard to believe that the women in the lifeboats wouldn't want to turn back to rescue their husbands. They claim it was due to a fear of capsizing but as I said earlier, most of the lifeboats weren't full.  Ugh.  It's just awful.

The silver lining in all of this?  It completely changed the way things were done going forward.  Never again was a ship ill-equipped with too few lifeboats, they instituted an iceberg patrol in the North Atlantic, etc.

Really fascinating read.  I just wish there had been more details.  I guess you could say this was a good general account but perhaps a worthy supplement would be one fleshed-out and reliable survivor's account.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Bridge Ladies - Review

I really liked this book.  I enjoy memoirs because I like learning about how people work. Sometimes I think Sociology should've been my major.

The Bridge Ladies is about a group of octogenarian Jewish women who've been playing bridge for fifty-some years, as told from the perspective of one of their middle-aged daughters.  I enjoyed it both because I could relate to some of the dysfunctional aspects of their relationships and also, because I couldn't.  I also enjoyed learning about the generational gaps between the ladies and their children.  For these ladies, bridge is their escape from real life.  They support each other silently through life's challenges but when it comes down to it, they really don't dwell on or talk about their troubles.  It's about camaraderie and allegiance through sport.      

What I came away with is that everyone has a story, everyone has a burden to carry. Maybe if we were all a little more sensitive and open to that fact, we'd all get along better or at least accept that people are who they are.  The Bridge Ladies is a good reminder of that.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Color Purple - Review

I've been wanting to read The Color Purple for years.  I feel like that's been my reading theme in 2016 - tackling books I've had on my list for a long time.

Now having read it, I can't believe it took me this long!  It's such a beautiful and bittersweet journey.  I love the protagonist, Celie, and most of the side characters.  There's a lot of sadness in Celie's tale but hope, too.

I don't want to get into the details because that would spoil the story but I like how some characters surprise you with their personal evolutions.  Not all of the easy-to-hate characters have redemption but at least one does.  To me, it's a really important part of the story because it's so true to life.  People are constantly evolving and sometimes that's a good thing.

I guess what I got most out of the story - and I'm not sure if this was Alice Walker's objective - is how important it is to have self-worth.  You have to believe in yourself even when people disparage you or it seems like the world is out to get you.  If you think you deserve better then you'll get better.

At one point in the book Celie has a crisis of faith and her dear friend, Shug, tries to help her to see God in a different way - not as a man (particularly, a white man) but as the grass, trees, birds, etc.  She says something along the lines of, have you ever thought that God wants us to see Him and be impressed by what He's made?  She says, God would be pissed if you saw the color purple in a field and didn't notice it.  To me, Celie is like the color purple because she's at best, ignored, at worst, beaten and abused.  Once she realizes her self-worth, she's the color purple that stands out and gets noticed.        

Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Handmaid's Tale - Review

I've had The Handmaid's Tale on my reading list for years but I only just mustered up the interest to delve into it.  For an easy-to-read and short book it took me a good little while to get through it.

I can't say I enjoyed it.  It was a bit of a struggle for me to stay engaged.  In fact, I forced myself to finish it so that I could at least move onto something else.

I get the importance of the book and why it's especially significant for women and feminists. It explores the repercussions of a religious totalitarian government that subjugates women for the purpose of serving men/society.

The Handmaid's Tale is told from one handmaid's perspective.  Handmaid is one of the most important roles assigned to women in this society - reproductive surrogate.  When I say important, I don't mean that they're valued; they're treated merely as vessels and if they fail, they are disposed of.

Many of the commanders and their wives (the highest order for women in this society) are elderly and/or infertile and so a younger, fertile woman is selected to copulate with the commander, with the wife also present.  Ick.  It's not meant to be kinky or fun.  They actually call it the "ceremony".  Since most (all?) of the commanders are infertile the reproductive successes come from secret liaisons with a doctor (the handmaids are required to have a monthly checkup) or one of the guardians (men in positions beneath commanders like chauffeurs).

Handmaids are broken and then molded by Aunts.  It's an interesting system in that all women are treated less than the men but they're also pitted against one another.  Wives despise the handmaids because they're taking over an aspect of their roles; Marthas, the cooks/maids in society, also look down on the handmaids like they're dirty whores; Aunts are the enforcers so the handmaids hate them; Handmaids are fearful of the wives because with a snap of their fingers they can have them taken away.

All of these social constructs are interesting and also, scary to think about, but I just wasn't very into the plot or the protagonist or the other characters.  I appreciate the reading experience, especially because of the times we live in.  I wouldn't doubt that there are plenty of right-wingers who'd love to turn women into slaves.  We already know they'd love to take away any/all of our reproductive rights.  All in all I guess I'd say I liked it but I didn't love it. Maybe it's just too hard to think about realistically because I don't want to think about it realistically!            

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.