Biographies & Memoirs

Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account

Auschwitz: A Doctor's Eyewitness AccountAuschwitz: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account by Miklós Nyiszli

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The writing style is very bare-bones, pared down, and concise. Nyiszli, a Jewish doctor forced to “practice” his craft at Auschwitz, recounts his experiences in a detached, almost emotionless-seeming way. This approach serves to highlight the atrocities and horror of the concentration camps by dint of the very factual, almost scientific approach. In a weird way, his detachment keeps the reader so off-guard that each fresh nightmare is an unexpected development; even for those familiar with the history.  I really think this is something anyone with a passing interest in history or war should read.

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Waiter Rant

Waiter RantWaiter Rant by Steve Dublanica

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I didn’t like this book that much, I’m sorry to say. I’m sorry to say so because it came highly recommended by a close friend of mine, because it’s about an industry I’m intrigued by, and because the author often cites theological, historical, and psychological points I find utterly fascinating. It was weird to read a book from the perspective of someone who has the same type of interests I do and analyzes people in muc the same manner I do. I can’t help but wonder if I come off in the same sort of off-putting way he does. It’s a bit discomfiting, to tell the truth.

At the same time, I honestly think the reason I didn’t like this book was because his writing style seemed . . . I don’t know how to explain it. Unnatural? Feigned? It felt as though he was writing in a style he admired, as though he was copying some tough-as-nails author he wished to emulate, but his actual writing style kept pushing through. Like a teenage boy wearing his dad’s business suit, a bit. There were moments in the book where his voice flowed and everything seemed natural and un-self-conscious, and there were other points were I felt as though he really, really, really wanted to impress someone and was trying to mimic their style and their voice instead of staying true to himself.

So maybe I shouldn’t rate it so low. It’s a good book, a decent read, and fairly interesting. I suspect as he familiarizes himself with writing and the publishing industry, he’ll settle into his voice and style and I’ll probably quite like his writing. I’ve seen a similar situation with other authors, and no doubt it’ll happen to me if I ever climb that mountain.

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Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never SeenBorn to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall

♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

I loved this book. I was ambivalent, I admit — I’m not much one for books recommended on tv shows, and I probably would have never picked it up on my own in a bookstore (it’s about running, come on!).

But the author was on the Daily Show, and he was so obviously excited and knowledgeable about his topic — it was infectious.

I immediately put it on my to-read list, and ended up reading it on my Nook. It is, in a word, incredible. The science, the history, and the people . . . it’s all woven together in this seamless, always fascinating manner. It’s both educational and entertaining — writing at it’s finest.

More than that, it’s inspiring. I actually want to run now!

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Self-Made Man: One Woman’s Journey Into Manhood and Back Again

Self-Made Man: One Woman's Journey Into Manhood and Back AgainSelf-Made Man: One Woman’s Journey Into Manhood and Back Again by Norah Vincent

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This is a great book. I absolutely adored it. Her writing voice is frank and thoughtful, and she does a fantastic job of exploring the gender divide. I want to own this book. It’s the type of book that you just want to grab a pen or pencil and notate throughout the thing, marking all those awesome passages or thought-provoking ideas.

For instance, she brings up the observation that we tend to have 5 or 6 gender-specific set responses, and when people aren’t certain of your gender (as happened later in her experiment, when she would go out dressed as Norah, but accidentally projecting the masculine confidence of Ned), they don’t know how to respond to you.

At one point, she gets a sales job as Ned. Her account of this experience is fascinating — the way that she lost sales when she tried to make them the way that was natural to her, as a woman. If she was polite, deferential and flirtatious (in the female manner), she was perceived by both men and women as weak and off-putting. But if she acted as a male — polite, but confident, firm in voice and convictions — she made more sales. However, she also worked with women who made sales just fine being polite, deferential and flirtatious. It was entirely the gender presented that worked against her.

The entire book is a great, fascinating and eye-opening observation of how deep and subconscious the gender divide really is. I didn’t come away from the book thinking, “Ugh, men are pigs, women are awesome.” Nor did I think the inverse: “Women are horrid, I wish I was a guy.”

Instead, I came away from it thinking, “Wow, it’s a hell of a lot more difficult to be a man in our society than I thought.”

Obviously, both men and women have gender-specific abilities and strengths that help them get ahead, socially. And I’m not talking about anything as obvious as physical characteristics. I’m talking about the ways we relate to each other, talk to each other and interact in society. This book really highlights how even the most gender-neutral, pro-gender-equality people still play to their preconceptions of how a gender should behave, and how they react in subconscious yet negative way when faced with the unexpected. It really highlights how we, as a society, encourage certain behaviors in each gender, only to bemoan and complain when those behaviors come with a price.

This book is promoted, a little, as a “secret inside glimpse at male behaviors.” But it’s so much more than that. She really gets into the meat of the matter, discussing why each gender presents as the way they do. She talks about how as a child, she was raised in a liberal, feminist family. She’s often told (when female), that she has a masculine aspect, and she’d thought that going in drag would highlight that aspect — only to find that when she was in drag, her feminine qualities stood out in glaringly and off-puttingly obvious ways. So her background is one of a tomboy girl, a child who was encouraged to play with “boy” toys and “girl” toys, as were her brothers. Yet even as pro-feminist, lesbian woman, she still fell back on typical “female” behaviors, without even realizing that she’d internalized them so thoroughly until she did this experiment.

Because of this realization, she often touches on how women relate to each other and how women relate to men, as well as how men relate to each other and to women; ways that are taught and reinforced on subconscious levels from before we can speak and throughout our lives. It’s an incredibly fascinating and very thought-provoking book.

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Open: Love, Sex, and Life in an Open Marriage

Open: Love, Sex, and Life in an Open MarriageOpen: Love, Sex, and Life in an Open Marriage by Jenny Block

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When I first read this, in 2009, my husband and I were playing with the idea of an open marriage. We had some friends in an open marriage, and they would often tell us how great it was and how well they thought the relationship model would work for us. I began looking around, doing some reading and online research on this relationship model, and this was one of the books I found. My original 2009 review read:

“I found it to be a very interesting look at the dynamics and communications that are present in open relationships and polyamorous marriages. It’s also an interesting deconstruction of several social preconceptions of jealousy, monogamy, true love and what marriage and the nuclear family really mean.

Block cites her resources well. She covers various issues, including shades of sexuality, the influence of cultural and social history on marriage and romantic expectations, and what it means to live an alternative lifestyle in an essentially conservative society.

I highly recommend this book to anyone, whether they are considering an alternative lifestyle or whether they’re simply feeling a little lost and unfulfilled by their relationship, as though happily-ever-after wasn’t what they’d been led to expect. It is a fantastic read.”

Since then, my stance has changed a little bit. First, to be completely honest, my husband and I did try polyamory. We found it didn’t work for us personally — that the amount of work and communication required to maintain multiple relationships did not even come close to justifying the supposed benefits. If anything, the stress of polyamory actually reduced the emotional connection and fulfillment we experienced in any given relationship.

After our experience, I revisited this book and several other pro-poly books. I still find them interesting, and many offer useful and valid tools for improving communication in relationships. That said, such books almost always share three specific drawbacks.

  1. They almost uniformly cite the evolutionary theory of polyamory; that is, that polyamory is the natural state of human beings and monogamy is an unnatural culturally enforced value.
  2. They come off sort of evangelical — polyamory is the happy ending, the come-to-Jesus/ this is the Secret/ moment of rebirth.
  3. They decry all forms of jealousy in a relationship a negative and unnecessary emotion, and often offer anecdotes about their own experiences overcoming harmful jealousy — yet such books and websites offer in terms of support, resources, or solutions for someone trying to deal with jealousy.

As far as the evolutionary claim goes, I disdain arguments that rest on that basis. It is also evolutionarily natural to rape; that does make it desirable or moral. We are human beings and can arise above our evolutionary instincts. Additionally, as human beings we are still evolving. Evolution was not a linear progression that began with amoeba and ended at homosapien; it is an ongoing reaction to our environment. Recent research has shown indications that monogamy has become a preferred/ selected evolutionary trait — so even if one were to accede to the premise that an evolutionary urge is a valid basis for determining relationship models, the claim that we have evolved to prefer polyamorous relationships still doesn’t hold water.

I also dislike the evolutionary argument because it seems to assume everyone has it in them to be polyamorous, but has been brainwashed into acting against their innate preferences. I think this plays into the second point, of polyamory being “the happy ending,” and the sometimes missionary-esque sense of pressure one can experience when they come in contact with the community.

As far as the jealousy issue goes, I do agree that jealousy is unhealthy and damaging to relationships. That said, in this community that was so anti-jealousy, I was surprised and dismayed to find so little engagement of how to deal with the emotion itself! I had often felt silenced and frustrated during our marriage experiment with poly, as any negative emotions or attempts at discussing respectful boundaries were often met with accusations of jealousy, which effectively shut down further communication. In the books, I found surprisingly little on how to deal with this method of invalidating communication.

Long story short, my review is not quite as rave as it was in 2009. It’s an interesting book, but take it with a grain of salt.

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House Rules

House RulesHouse Rules by Rachel Sontag

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It was . . . interesting. I wavered between feeling disgusted at the belittling actions of her father and repelled at how ungrateful the daughter was for the opportunity to travel to exotic places and have a full-ride education. Then again, I’ve been in situations where otherwise fantastic opportunities and experiences have been soured by an accompanying unhappy, cruel, and vicious personality.

The psychological aspect of it is intriguing — her accounting of how her father shaped her personality and how she continues to mimic him to this day. It’s interesting to see her pick herself apart, look at the different pieces of herself and put them back together in a light that she can reconcile with her idea of a decent person, whereas she cannot or will not do the same for her father. That’s probably because he effects her more than she’s willing to admit by the end of the book — she claims that she can forge a relationship that works with her mother, though she’s angrier at her mother, but she completely shuts out her father and makes no attempt to communicate or reconcile with him. It’s an interesting question of psychology and how we can see and be repelled by the worst parts of ourselves in others.

The biggest complaint I had with the book was the writing style — it jarred from the get-go. She recounted conversations with her family members from decades in her past with the clarity of moments ago. She made no allowances in her writing, no admission that she may be misremembering or representing the conversation incorrectly. No disclaimer such as, “This may not be what was exactly said, but this is my memory of the events and the impression it left upon me.” Nor did she at any time say that she’d interviewed others in her family and presented their points of view to present the most unbiased account she could.

Because it’s so detailed and so obviously bent toward demonizing her father, it loses credibility. I’m tempted to think of it as the rant of a rich girl meeting “A Million Little Pieces” syndrome.

If you’re reading it for the story, don’t. If you’re reading it because it’s mildly interesting to psychoanalyze the different players, and read her versions of analysis, then by all means continue reading.

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All the Fishes Come Home to Roost: An American Misfit in India

All the Fishes Come Home to Roost: An American Misfit in IndiaAll the Fishes Come Home to Roost: An American Misfit in India by Rachel Manija Brown

♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

I very much enjoyed this. I don’t normally read autobiographies, but the verve and humor with which this one is written captures the reader from the start. I couldn’t put it down. I found her personal insights on topics such as religion, mental illness, and cultural divides incredibly interesting and thought-provoking. Her writing style is engaging and captivating, and I really liked that she interviewed family members and friends about their perspectives on the events presented.

A well written and captivating read.

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