Friday, August 20, 2010

Walking Papers: Francesco Clark

Few memoirs have moved me as emotionally as the book, Walking Papers, which was written by Francesco Clark. In the late 1980's, Francesco was a twenty four year old man enjoying a dazzling post college life in New York City. He was about to begin a lucrative job at a public relations firm after a successful stint at Harper’s Bazaar Magazine. One night in May, Francesco escaped the city for his summer rental in the Hamptons and decided to take a late night swim. This evening would prove to be pivotal and life altering as he accidently dove into the shallow end of the pool, hitting his chin and shattering his spine. Francesco was told that he would never walk again or function independently. The book graphically chronicles Francesco’s recovery process as a C4 quadriplegic and his coming to terms with the ramifications of his injury. Buoyed by the undying love and support of his close knit Italian American family, Francisco struggles to regain movement and is fearless in his determination to explore experimental surgeries and therapies. As a reader, I was astounded at the apathy and negativity of his doctors and therapists who told Francesco to simply accept his new life. This story moved me to tears and ignited a desire to assist people such as Francesco in my own small way. Readers learn that in the era of technology and stem cell research that a spinal injury does not necessarily lead to a life in purgatory. Ultimately, Francesco Clark has flourished in the years since his injury and is carrying the torch as an Ambassador for the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. He is also a successful entrepreneur of a skin care line which proceeds benefit the above foundation. I hope you will read this amazing memoir because you will be changed as a human being by reading this exceptional story of one person’s mission to survive. You will be grateful for your own blessings and  Francesco’s memoir may inspire you to give to others. Finally, books such as this one are the reason I write on this blog; hoping to promote a love of reading and compassion for others through the written word.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven (2009); Susan Jane Gilman

The year is 1986 and before they are about to graduate from Brown University, two friends hatch a plan one night at The International House of Pancakes to embark on a backpacking journey around the world. Susan Gilman and Claire Van Houten are idealistic and well read, naive to the rigors of world travel in a time before the Internet. Susan states, “In the scheme of human history, 1986 is not long ago. And yet as we made our lists, the foreign countries we were naming seemed a lot farther away than they do now" (11). The first country on the list is the People's Republic of China, newly opened to foreign travel after decades of Communist rule. As readers, we become deeply immersed in the dichotomous relationship between the tall, willowy Connecticut WASP, Claire, and the practical, occasional hypochondriac and Brooklyn bred, Susie. The girls embark enthusiastically but are unprepared for the primitive conditions as well as the language and cultural barriers they encounter. As the journey continues, they begin to experience real physical and mental difficulties as well as problematic interactions with Chinese officials as they venture into areas that are considered off limits. Susie relates these experiences in witty and humorous prose. "Claire and I trudged on, seething in silence. We were in the middle of a Chinese wonderland of geology, botany, and agriculture, but all I could focus on was a catalogue of personal grievances" (196). Highlights of the memoir for this reader were the colorful characters who assisted them along the way: Jonnie, a well spoken Chinese native; Eckhardt Grimm, a handsome German traveler; and Sandy Fenton, the Canadian nurse who becomes a real super hero to the girls. This book reminded me of another favorite, Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer. In comparison, Susie and Claire are young American college graduates attempting to conquer the world and unfortunate events unfold. Yet in this memoir, Susie's practical, dark humor carries the reader through as the journey ubruptly ends. I intend to read the rest of Gilman's work because she has such a unique method of writing, that you ultimately become lost in her story.


Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Orange is the New Black (2010); Piper Kerman

One of my favorite movies is Shawshank Redemption and perhaps that explains my fascination with prison tales. Orange is the New Black is an introspective memoir by first time author, Piper Kerman, chronicling her 13 month experience with the United States prison system. Can you remember some of the mistakes you made in your early 20’s? Kerman paid dearly for hers. As a recent graduate of Smith College, an all girl’s school, Kerman dabbled in a lesbian relationship with Nina, a woman with ties to a drug smuggling operation. She traveled the world in high class fashion and eventually ended up smuggling money to Paris as a payback to Nina. Completetely shell shocked by the endeavor and against her Connecticut WASP upbringing, Piper Kerman fled to a new life in San Francisco, fell in love with a wonderful man, Larry, and invested her time in a traditional marketing career. Fast forward ten years later and Piper is named in a lawsuit with the drug cartel purportedly being called out by Nina. The rest of the novel explores Piper's incarceration in a Danbury, Connecticut prison for women and the cast of characters she meets. The plot unfolds in a unique way as the protagonist is surprised at the generosity and kindness in the women she meets. Darker moments occur as she perceives how utterly defenseless she is to the extreme power of the prison guards and her terrifying trip on Con Air (the prison airline system). Piper comes full circle and is imprisoned with Nina as one of her only allies while waiting to testify about someone she has never even met. Kerman could be a sister or friend and her writing provides a cautionary tale for young women who wish to rebel and defy the straight path in life. Some major themes I discovered in the memoir included revisiting your past and paying penance, unlikely places to find true friendship and love, and how powerless one can feel inside the prison system. I hope you will read this wonderful nonfiction work over the summer and ultimately analyze the current prison system in the United States.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Q & A with Shonda Schilling (The Best Kind of Different, 2010)

1. Why did you decide to write this book and how long did it take you to complete?
I wrote a speech last May. Someone sent it to Harper Collins, and they asked me to write a book. Before that I had never dreamed I would write a book. It took me about six weeks to write it. They decided I was to do a crash book, meaning I didn't have a very long window. I signed the contract in the middle of October, and the book was turned in before Christmas

2. As a busy mom of four, what was your writing process and did you have assistance?
I would get them ready for school, drop them off and write until they came home. Then I would take them to all their activities and when they went to bed I would start writing again. I started off dictating to someone but we found it easier for them to tell me what they thought I should write and I would go from there. The editor and this person were the ones who told me what the book needed, such as more of the baseball life, less of this more of that.

3. What is Asperger’s Syndrome and what are some common misconceptions about it?
I think we all know someone who has it. They sometimes don't understand personal space. They talk obsessively about a subject they like and tend to know much more than the average information about one subject. Some can't make eye contact and some are socially awkward. They are often bright and sometimes speak without a filter but it is never done out of meanness. They don't understand you have an opinion and often speak honestly. They don't get social understanding of when it is okay to bend the truth or lie.

4. Who are some famous Americans who have had this disease?
Clay Marzo the professional surfer is one example. You can see a video about him on the following link:

5. How is Grant doing at present and what is your outlook for the future?
Grant doesn't notice that other kids think he is different and that might change. Presently, he is in the fourth grade and adapts well in school. When he gets to middle school that is when I will worry. The social piece will really be escalated and changing multiple classes might be hard for him. For right now, I live in this moment.

6. Why do you feel that this book is important for all parents to read?
I think it is something that everyone should understand. There is no doubt in my mind that each of us knows a person with this syndrome. The message for the book is that you never know what goes on in someone’s family. Maybe if we just think that there are people out there every day dealing with this life, it would make us think before we judge, making this world a much happier place.

7. How has your husband, Curt Schilling, dealt with the diagnosis?
I think it was very hard for him to understand because he was not around it day in and day out. It wasn't until he retired and could see it on a daily basis that he realized that this is a totally different way to look at life.

8. How has your family adapted to life outside major league baseball and will Massachusetts be your home base?
We went right into a typical family life. None of us are looking back or missing it. Baseball was fun but the kids are happy to have two parents, and we do things that typical families do that we never got to do like vacations during spring break and barbecues at people’s houses.

9. As a Unionville, PA native, I am curious about what you enjoyed about living in the area?
Where we live now reminds me so much of there. It has a small town feel. Everyone knows one another, and you really feel like a village is helping to raise your kids.

10. What are some of your favorite books and what are your current projects?
My current projects include coaching softball for my daughter and running these crazy kids all over. I just read The Last Lecture. I love anything that inspires.

11. What reaction have you gotten from the book?
All positive, which is shocking? I think people didn't expect much since baseball wives are stereotyped. But they love the honesty and for parents with kids with autism or any challenges, I think it is nice for us know that we are not alone.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Rebecca Skloot, 2010)

I kept noticing this book in online reviews and the bookstore but I wasn’t sure if it would be too science laden for my reading tastes. I was delightfully surprised and this is one of the most thought provoking books I have ever read. In Oct. 1951, thirty one year old mother of five, Henrietta Lacks, died at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore, MD from an aggressive form of cervical cancer. As was the custom of the time, researcher Dr. George Guy collected her tissue samples to try to replicate them in culture. Ms. Lack’s cancer cells began to rapidly multiply and divide which was uncommon; human cells usually died. Her cells were sent to other researchers around the world and were used in studies on polio, cancer, AIDS, hepatitis, DNA, and many more. Named HeLa for the initials of Henrietta Lacks, these cells are commonly used by scientists and are extremely well known. The book takes an ironic turn as we learn that her relatives never had knowledge of the use of Henrietta’s cells in research and were not compensated monetarily. Her children grew up poor and had hard lives after the death of their mother. Especially heart wrenching is the fate of Elsie Lacks, Henrietta’s mentally retarded daughter. Henrietta Lacks is buried in an unmarked grave in Clover, VA where her ancestors were once slaves. This is the first book by Rebecca Skloot and she spent ten years exploring the twists and turns of Henrietta’s story. Finally, this work will leave readers with questions regarding the use of our own tissue for medical studies and the ethics behind researching human subjects. I welcome comments and discussion on this fascinating story.

Henrietta Lacks and her husband, David.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Q & A with Hannah Tinti (The Good Thief, 2008)

Interview Questions: The Good Thief (Hannah Tinti)

1. How did you become inspired to write The Good Thief and were there autobiographical components to the novel?
It all began when I came across the phrase “Resurrection Men” and read the definition. Resurrection Men were thieves who would dig up bodies and sell them to medical schools. The practice exploded in the U.S. and Europe as medical schools were becoming established, and still continues today. It was the first thing I’d ever come across that I felt I could write an entire novel about. I’m from Salem, Massachusetts, and so Gothic elements have always made their way into my writing. In the end I wanted the book to be an homage to the classic boy adventure tales that made me fall in love with reading when I was a child: Great Expectations and Treasure Island. As for autobiographical elements—I’ve never robbed a grave in my life!

2. Explain your writing schedule. (Do you have a specific place/time to write and do you write for long periods or in snippets?)
I write whenever I can find the time and space. But often weeks go by when I am busy teaching or editing, and I don’t get anything down at all.

3. How did you decide what elements were important for this time period?
I purposely did as little research as possible with my first draft, so that the characters would drive the narrative. Then, I went back and read books on medical history, and resurrection men, and also read many newspapers from the 1800s. But growing up in Salem, MA made it easy for me to imagine how everything should look and feel—most of the houses there are from the 1700s and 1800s.

4. You began as a short story writer. When did you decide to write a novel?
When I came across a subject too big to fit into a short story.

5. Do you believe that novice writers should hone their skills with short stories before attempting to write a novel?
Not necessarily. Short stories and novels are very different, and require different things, stylistically and structurally. Some writers I know can only write novels—they need more room to breathe.

6. The Good Thief is set in Salem, MA; your hometown. Do you feel that authors should stick to the known when writing?
Actually, The Good Thief is not set in Salem—most of the action is set in a made-up town called North Umbrage. I purposely didn’t want to use any real places in the book, so I would have more freedom to develop the setting. I don’t think writers should only stick to what they know—I think they should write about what interests them.

7. The protagonist, Ren, is a young male orphan. Why did you choose to write from a male perspective instead of that of a young girl?
It seemed to make sense for the story. A young girl in this situation would be more complicated, and would have to deal with sexual issues if she was on her own at such a young age.

8. How did you decide to tell the story from only Ren’s point of view and not the other characters?
After sketching out the first scene, it was clear to me that Ren was the hero of the story, and it should be told from his point of view. I wanted the reader to discover things along with him.

9. Why do feel that the characters resonate with fans of Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson?
I think this is because I used Dickens and Stevenson as my inspiration. I wanted the book to be a real action/adventure tale. I also tried to employ “classic” storytelling techniques.

10. Benjamin Nab is such a charismatic adventurer. Is he modeled on characteristics of any people in your real life?
No, he is modeled on Johnny Depp!

11. Who were some of your favorite authors growing up and who are you currently reading?
I loved the Bronte sisters. I re-read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights every few years. I am currently reading Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, which just won The Story Prize.

12. What made you want to become a writer and what are some of your current projects?
My mother was a librarian, and so I grew up loving books. But I never thought of being a writer until I took my first writing class with Blanche Boyd at Connecticut College. She opened the door to the possibility of being a writer. Currently I am working on a new novel, and also a comic book series.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Q & A: In the Sanctuary of Outcasts (Neil White, 2009)

Question and Answer with Neil White
2010 Finalist: Barnes & Noble "Discover Great New Writers Award"
In the Sanctuary of Outcasts

1. What motivated you to write about your experiences at the Carville, LA compound?
I witnessed an unprecedented convergence of cultures — the last 130 leprosy patients in America, 500 federal convicts, 100 prison guards, an ancient order of nuns and a Franciscan monk. The misunderstandings, along with the enlightenments, were extraordinary.

I was a man for whom image meant everything. And I was sent to the one place in the country where outward appearance meant nothing. I wanted to document this odd, magical time and place.

2. Can you give readers a short summary of your memoir?
In the Sanctuary of Outcasts is the story of the year I lived in the national leprosarium in the U.S. While there, surrounded by men and women who could not hide their disfigurement, I finally was able to see my own.

3. While at Carville, what was your writing routine?
While at Carville I took copious notes. Every time I heard a great line of dialogue, or witnessed something compelling, I wrote it down. But, primarily, I wrote in a notebook in diary form (or wrote letters to family and friends). I didn’t really start to write in the creative non-fiction/memoir form until after my release.

4. Can you share information on the history of leprosy and explain why the disease is not as prevalent today?
Leprosy is the oldest disease known to man (skeletal remains put the disease at 3,000 years old). For centuries, it was considered a curse from God, a disease of the soul. But, in the 1800’s a scientist identified a bacilli that caused the disease, but quarantine was still the order of the day. In the 1940s, at Carville, a cure was developed. Now, most Americans who contract the disease are treated on an outpatient basis with a multi-drug therapy. For most modern day patients, the stigma is much worse than the physical side effects.
Experts say 95% of Americans have a natural resistance to the disease. But in developing nations like Brazil and India, it is still a pretty serious health issue.

5. What were two of the most profound relationships you observed at Carville?
Certainly, my relationship with Ella Bounds (an old woman with no legs who contracted the disease at the age of 12) was one of the most important in my life. We couldn’t have been more different. She was 80; I was 32. She was African-American; I was as white as they come. She was weak of body and strong of spirit; I was just the opposite. She guided me, gently, with story and metaphor, but mostly by how she lived.
On the prison side, I’d have to say my friendship with Link (a crack dealer/carjacker from New Orleans) was the most profound. He made unmerciful fun of me, challenged my worldview and, essentially, wouldn’t let me get away with anything. We became pretty good friends. And to this day, he’s one of the funniest men I’ve ever encountered.

6. Explain the common use of aliases among the patients and the use of pseudonyms on gravestones.
Leprosy carried such stigma that upon arrival at the colony the residents were made to take aliases to protect their families. Many of the patients were abandoned. They were buried in a cemetery on the colony grounds. Often the tombstones were engraved with a pseudonym.

7. What was the reaction from the leprosy patients and the inmates at Carville when you published your book?
I’ve been surprised at how positive the reaction has been from all sides. The leprosy patients didn’t like the fact that I used the term “leper” in the beginning of the book, but I think they are at peace with it now. The inmates — at least the ones I’ve heard from — have all enjoyed the book. And even a guard or two has reached out to tell me how much the experience meant to them. So, all things considered, the response has been positive, if not downright generous.

8. Can you tell us what happened to some of the characters depicted in the book?
Ella Bounds died in 1998. She’s buried in an unmarked grave just north of her childhood home. Harry is still alive and living at Carville. In fact, he just started volunteering at the museum. Jimmy Harris died in 2002.

On the inmate side, Doc is back in jail for an alleged SEC violation. He adamantly proclaims his innocence. I’ve had no contact with Link since my release. Frank Ragano’s book, Mob Lawyer, was published just after his release. He died in 1998. Dan Duchaine, the steroid guru, died in 2000. Steve Read (an airline entrepreneur) died in 1999.

9. What was it like for you to foray from investigative journalism articles to writing a memoir?
It was a huge adjustment. Journalists are focused on the lives, acts and motives of others. But a memoirist must take that microscope, that scrutiny, we put on others and turn it inward. It’s very different. I spent about a decade studying the top memoirist/personal essayists to develop that craft.

10. What are your current projects and who are some of your favorite authors?
I’m working on some essays — and a script. Not sure about my next book project. Some of my favorite fiction writers are Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor, Larry Brown, Barry Hannah, Tom Franklin and a great, new novelist, Jonathan Miles. Favorite nonfiction writers include Bill Bryson, Tobias Wolff, Lee Gutkind, Dinty W. Moore, Joan Didion, and Vladimir Nabokov (for his brilliant memoir, Speak, Memory).

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Still Alice (Lisa Genova, 2007)

Still Alice is the award winning New York Times fiction bestseller by Lisa Genova. A first time novelist, Genova holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University and is affiliated with the National Alzheimer’s Foundation. As an English professor, I was intrigued by the book about Alice Howland, a fifty year old Harvard professor who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Alice is an accomplished academic, happily married, and the mother of three adult children. Early in the novel, she becomes perplexed as to why she is misplacing things, getting lost on routine runs, and forgetting familiar words. She is stunned to learn that she has Alzheimer’s disease and grapples with the fact that she will slowly be losing her mind. Ultimately, everything she has worked for in life is slowly taken away. Alice struggles to come to grips with the gradual loss of her cognitive functions and her family must adapt to a new dynamic in their relationship. I became completely engrossed in her story and felt compelled to wonder what I would do in her situation. How would I react if I received such a diagnosis or had to take care of a family member with this horrible illness? After reading Still Alice, my heart goes out to the people who are suffering from this disease. In Alice’s words, “This last part of your life, the part with Alzheimer’s and this end that you’ve carefully chosen, is tragic, but you did not live a tragic life.”

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Quick Quote for the Day

"Once all struggle is grasped, miracles are possible" Mao Tse Tung

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Good Thief (Hannah Tinti, 2008)

The Good Thief (Hannah Tinti, 2008)
Over the holiday break, I decided to branch out from reading memoirs and found The Good Thief, the debut novel of writer, Hannah Tinti. On the back cover, Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love described this book as, “a beautifully composed work of literary magic,” and I was sold. The author grew up in Salem, MA (the site of the famous witch trials) and chose 19th century New England as the setting of her story. The main character in the novel is an eleven year old orphan named Ren and his most noted characteristic is that he is missing his left hand. Ren and his friends, twin brothers Brom and Ichy long for a family to adopt them from Saint Anthonys Rectory before they are sent into the army. Ren’s rescuer arrives in the form of Benjamin Nab, a charismatic, stealthy adventurer and as Ren comes to learn, con man. Tinti was inspired to write the story after learning of the now extinct profession of resurrection men; people who stole bodies from graves and sold them to medical institutions for the research and training of doctors. Ren, Benjamin, and former schoolteacher, Tom, travel to the town of North Umbrage and frantic adventures ensue. Along the way, they encounter many unique characters such as swarthy, eccentric landlady, Mrs. Sands and her reclusive dwarf brother; Dolly the lovable hit man; McGuinty, the evil wealthy owner of the mousetrap factory, his mousetrap girls and his henchmen the hat boys. The book has been described as a blend of Harry Potter, Oliver Twist, and the works of Robert Louis Stevenson. Although I usually prefer memoirs, The Good Thief was an engrossing tale that I read in a few days. Tinti has written is an excellent work of fiction and I believe it would be interesting to adolescents as well as adults. The book is a wonderful story set in New England to read on the cold winter nights ahead of us. Enjoy!