Category Archives: Memoir

Among the Living and the Dead by Inara Verzemnieks

Latvia is a small country. Nevertheless, over the last few years I’ve still managed to read a couple of books set in this tiny Baltic nation. For instance, last year I read Henning Mankell’s The Dogs of Riga and back in 2013 it was Agate Nesaule’s ward-winnng memoir A Woman in Amber: Healing the Trauma of War and Exile

Last September I came across a review in the New York Times of a recently published memoir by Latvian-American Pulitzer Prize-finalist and nonfiction writing professor Inara Verzemnieks. Intrigued by David Bezmozgis’ review, I placed a hold on Verzemnieks’ memoir with my public library and before I knew it, a copy became available. I’m happy to report I breezed through Among the Living and the Dead: A Tale of Exile and Homecoming on the War Roads of Europe in no time. Which of course based on my experience usually means I’d chosen a good book to read.

Like many children unlucky to be born to a pair of broken parents Verzemnieks was raised by her grandparents, both active members of a tight-knit community of Latvian émigrés in Tacoma, Washington. While growing up Verzemnieks took part in numerous activities like special summer camps, Latvian-langauge church services and folk dancing all meant to keep alive the culture and spirit of her relatives’ former homeland. Years later, she traveled to Latvia to interview those blood relations who stayed behind. Among the Living and the Dead is a beautifully written and fast-paced account of their lives, especially the hardships they endured living under not one, but two brutal regimes as well as suffering the ravages of war.

History has not been kind to Latvia. With the exception of the interwar period of 1918 to 1940 when the country briefly existed as an independent nation it’s been dominated by larger and mightier European powers. Only relatively recently with the collapse of the USSR has Latvia been able reclaim its independence. While the country as a whole was ruled by Russia (be it imperial or Soviet) individual Latvians, especially those in rural areas lived as serfs, laboring for their Germanic overlords. World War II brought immense suffering to the Latvians. Starting in 1940 the Soviet Union invaded and annexed Latvia, imposing Communist rule and with it forced collectivization, murder and deportation. (Verzemnieks’ great aunt Ausma was sent to Siberia.) The following summer the country would be invaded once more, this time by the Germans. After spending three years living under German occupation Latvia was invaded and annexed a third and final time by the Soviets.

In addition to invasion and annexation, depopulation is another recurring theme. Under the Soviets thousand of Latvians were either exiled to Siberia or sentenced to years of hard labor in the Gulag. Even after breaking free from the former Soviet Union, according to Verzemnieks thousands of Latvians have left and continue to leave in search of greener pastures in Western Europe and America.

The strength of this memoir is its writing. As I mentioned earlier Verzemnieks writes beautifully. Therefore, I have no hesitation recommending Among the Living and the Dead to anyone, especially readers interested in one the more overlooked countries of Europe.



Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Memoir

About Time I Read It: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

It’s been said in the end, every man dies alone. But no matter how you look at it, eventually someone’s gotta take care of the body. Admit it, as unpleasant as that might be it still intrigues you. Doesn’t it?

Over the last few years I’ve been reading all kinds of positive things on the web about Caitlin Doughty’s 2014 memoir Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory. Even one my old VPs had great things to say about it. But like so many books that sounded promising I made a mental note to read it and then did nothing. That it until one day I found an available copy at my local public library and I grabbed it. Doughty’s memoir is worth the hype. It’s fun because it’s interesting, entertaining and quirky without being morbid. Not a bad combination when you’re talking about a first-hand look at the inner workings of the funeral industry.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes tells the story of how Doughty (who also has a cool You Tube channel called “Ask the Mortician” in which she answers odd questions like what happened to the HMS Titanic’s dead) started as a complete neophyte in the funeral industry. While Doughty learns the ins and outs of her new job, we as readers learn right along side her as she tackles embalming and cremating. Neophyte or not, she quickly catches on, eventually becoming a kind of new face of the industry thanks to her youth, enthusiasm, honesty and perhaps above all irreverent humor.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes isn’t just Doughty’s story but also a history of the whole funeral industry. She puts that degree in Medieval History (with an emphasis death and culture) from the University of Chicago to work, serving up a readable history of funerals, embalming, cremation and the like. This makes Smoke Gets in Your Eyes the perfect follow-up book to Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.

In what could possibly be an “it’s a small world” moment, in her memoir Doughty recalls growing up in Hawaii and living next door to the Kotzatkis family. Funny, one of my childhood friends with the same last name moved to Hawaii in the mid 90s. I’d love to think it’s my old friend who happened to be her neighbor.


Filed under Memoir

I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai and Patricia McCormick

If I may for a moment, channel The Most Interesting Man in the World and say I don’t always read young adult books, but when I do, I prefer something that’s socially and politically relevant. When I saw my public library had an available copy of Malala Yousafzai’s 2014 memoir I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World I decided to grab it lest someone beat me to it. I mean, it’s not everyday you get to read something authored by history’s youngest Nobel laureate. Plus, with my interest in the history and politics of South Asia, I’d be fool to pass up a chance to read I Am Malala. Lastly, considering she spoke in town about six months ago it might be wise to read Yousafzai’s memoir in the event I find myself in a conversation with someone who saw her speak that night in my hometown of Portland. (Remember, one of the keys to being a great conversationist is knowing your audience. And that requires preparation, possibly even research.)

But I was hesitant to read it because the edition I’d selection was billed as the Young Reader Edition. Was this some dumbed-down, Dick and Jane Reader version of what I assumed was a powerful memoir? So, like any decent American who needs to know something, I went running to the Internet. Luckily for me, I came across Kasey’s blog PhDs and Pigtails. Back in March of 2015 she posted an outstanding piece in which she weighed in on the pros and cons of both the original version of I Am Malala and its Young Reader Edition. In the end, while she suggested it’s best to read both versions, she preferred the Young Reader Edition. Feeling enlightened by Kasey’s recommendation I began reading I Am Malala. After whipping through it in mere days I’m happy to report Kasey did not lead my astray. I Am Malala did not disappoint me.

If you’re a half-way intelligent person who’s spent even a modicum of time reading or watching the news over the last few years, you’re probably familiar with Malala’s story. After surviving being shot three times in the head by militants who found her views on female education an affront to Islam, the Pakistani teen became an international human rights celebrity and eventual co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. That’s about I knew about her before reading this book.

Thanks to I Am Malala I learned there’s a lot more to her story. For one, I had no idea prior to her assassination attempt she was such a vocal proponent of female eduction, doing interviews and meeting with officials. I also didn’t know how close she came to either dying or suffering major brain damage. (Or that she sought treatment in a series of four hospitals, with the last one in the United Kingdom.) But what will really stick with me after reading I am Malala is this young woman’s sense of purpose and belief in the importance of her cause, aided in no small part by her vast reservoir of self-confidence.

Not only did I enjoy this memoir, there’s a good chance at the end of the year when I look back on all the books I’ve read that I Am Malala could earn an honorable mention. This is a great book for young readers, as well as the not so young like myself.


Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, Indian Subcontinent, Islam, Memoir

Books About Books: The Pope’s Bookbinder by David Mason

The Pope's Book Binder: A MemoirDo any of you for one moment think I could ever resist a book entitled The Pope’s Bookbinder? Of course not. Once I discovered my public library had available copy of this cool sounding book I simply had to get my hands on it. As misleading as the title was, The Pope’s Book Binder did not disappoint me. I mean come on, how could not enjoy a memoir by a Canada’s premier dealer of rare and antique books?
In his memoir 2013, Mason recalls his life-long obsession with books, beginning with his adolescent obsession with cheap paperbacks. The ones that caught Mason’s eye were the ones with tawdry cover art, usually depicting some scantily clad woman or two in a sexy pose. Yielding to his youthful and prurient interests, he finally bought one of these nasty looking little editions. Later that night, as he lay in the bathtub reading it, Mason soon realized much to his disappointment it was not a piece of cheap smut but a copy of I Claudius. But to his surprise he fell in love with what he read, and soon after that reading and books in general. A rebellious but intellectually precocious  young man who loved reading but hated school, Mason dropped out at 15 and fled to Europe. After bumming around the Continent hippy-style he found employment in Spain in a book bindery. It was here he helped bind a high-end volume for the Pope. Returning to his native Canada he was able to broker his love of books and valuable work experience to land a job in the book industry. Eventually, after borrowing seed money from his father his started his own bookshop. From there he would go on to the that nation’s leading bookseller of first editions and rare Canadiana.
The Pope’s Book Binder was a glimpse into a world of books of which I knew little, including rare Canadiana but also foreign bootlegs of English language books. Thanks to the many anecdotes he shares throughout the book, (The Pope’s Bookbinder is nothing but wall to wall anecdotes) I also learned how close-knit and quirky the antiquarian book world tends to be. In a nutshell, it’s chockfull of eccentrics.
There’s a lot of interesting stuff on what it’s like to run a bookstore and all the adventures that go into stocking it. (Remember one of my earlier posts when I mentioned buying cheap books from carts outside the bookstore? According to Mason, those books tend to be leftovers from when a store has purchased a large collection of books from a private party.)
With my love of books about books I had no problem enjoying Mason’s memoir. I have a kind of personal cannon when it comes to books on the rare book trade. From time to time, I find myself recommending The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession, Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of BooksA Pound of Paper: Confessions of a Book Addict and The House of Twenty Thousand Books  Now, along with all those, I’ll also be recommending David Mason’s The Pope’s Bookbinder. 


December 15, 2016 · 5:15 am

Middle Eastern Memoirs: And Then All Hell Broke Loose by Richard Engel

And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades in the Middle EastAt one time memoirs about life in the Middle East were a regular feature on my blog. Seems like every time I turned around I was reviewing some book in which the author recalled the time he/she spent living in, or traveling through that particular part of the world. But over the last few years I found myself reading these kind of books less and less. As for exactly why I’m not sure, but probably it’s because I haven’t been reading books about the Middle East like I used to. Too bad. I think that needs to change.

One afternoon months ago I was strolling along the new books section of my local public library when I came across  Richard Engel’s recently published memoir And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades in the Middle East. As I stared at Engel’s book, I realized how long it’d been since I read a memoir like his. Thinking that spending two decades in the Middle East certainly should give an author something to write about I grabbed Engel’s memoir. Even though I  stopped reading it about half way through only to finish it several months later, it’s pretty good memoir and in the end, I’m glad I took a chance on it.

Engel’s memoir begins with him as a 23 year recent graduate of Stanford who ships off to Egypt to live his dream as a foreign correspondent. After honing his Arabic skills and immersing himself in the local culture (and getting to know members of the Muslim Brotherhood) he eventually finds work as a reporter. Working his way up the journalistic food chain, his career takes him throughout the region to Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, Israel/Palestinian Territories and Syria. In addition to covering two Gulf Wars and the Arab Spring protests, he also reported from the frontline battles in Libya and Syria, where in Syria he was kidnapped.

This is breezy and succinctly written memoir. If you’re looking for a light but informative look at the world of the Middle East And Then All Hell Broke Loose is your book. Give it a shot and I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

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Filed under Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, Islam, Memoir, Middle East/North Africa

Books About Books: The Maximum Security Book Club by Mikita Brottman

The Maximum Security Book Club: Reading Literature in a Men's PrisonBy now I think all of you know I’m a huge sucker for prison memoirs. I don’t care if they’re by former inmates, guards or even prison librarians just pass them my way ’cause I’ll read ’em all. You also probably know by now I’m also a huge sucker for books about books. Over the years I’ve featured books about bookstores, book collectors and even book thieves. So, when I discovered my public library had a book called The Maximum Security Book Club: Reading Literature in a Men’s Prison do you think I thought twice before grabbing it? Of course not.

Published in June of this year, Brottman’s memoir is a look back on the two years she spent leading a book club in a maximum-security men’s prison in Maryland. Her club consisted of 10 or so convicted felons, all of them from severely disadvantaged backgrounds and modestly educated at best. Assigned to read sophisticated works of literature like LolitaHeart of Darkness and Macbeth, the men in her group would share their thoughts of these great books and along the way, voice their opinions about life in prison, not to mention life in general. Like any good teacher, Brottman learned much from her experience, just as the men learned much from her. Perhaps most importantly, she learned in a prison those in power frequently exercise that power absolutely and arbitrarily.

I must have liked Brottman’s memoir because I whipped through it in what felt like no time. While I’m not sure if it will make my Best of List for 2016, it’s a strong honorable mention candidate. In no way did The Maximum Security Book Club leave me disappointed.


Filed under Memoir

Syrian Dust: Reporting from the Heart of the War by Francesca Borri

What happened to me? How come I don’t read stuff on the Middle East anymore? Seems like not that long ago I was forever reviewing some book about Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia or some other country or collection of counties from that part of the world. For several years I was an active participant in Helen’s Middle East Reading Challenge and one year I even hosted it. But over the last couple of years I’ve shied away from those kind of books. Who or what could I blame for this change in reading preference? Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge? My book club? My new-found love of the Kindle, and with it my feverish urge to read through my slight backlog of ebooks like Spillover and Bloodlands? What on earth could have caused this to happen?

One night I was fumbling my way through my public library’s online catalog when I came across a listing for Francesca Borri’s Syrian Dust: Reporting from the Heart of the War. With the ongoing carnage in Syria frequently featured in the news I figured such a book might help me greater understand the bloodfest I’ve been seen covered on CNN, the BBC and everywhere else. Plus, I could apply the book towards Introverted Reader’s Nonfiction Reading Challenge as well as her Books in Translation Reading Challenge, since Syrian Dust was translated from Italian. So, with those thoughts in mind I grabbed Borri’s book.

Perhaps like anyone else who’s read Syrian Dust, this is the first book on the Syrian Civil War I’ve read. Published in 2106, the book covers the period Borri spent in Syria as a freelance reporter covering the conflict. According to Borri, Syria is a giant soul-crushing mess. The opposition forces are hopelessly divided, fighting with each other when not battling Assad’s army. The only effective and organized rebels are the Islamists, and all they care about is setting up their own oppressive theocracy. The non-Islamist militias are relatively disorganized and underfunded and their corrupt leaders do nothing but live high on the hog and issue pious proclamations from the cozy confines of Istanbul, Paris and London. Meanwhile, either because of incompetence or sheer ruthlessness, Assad’s forces favor shelling and bombing civilian areas as opposed to columns of advancing rebels. Just like in any civil war, especially in the developing world, the civilians caught in the middle are diseased, displaced, maimed and starving.

This is a grim book, but a valuable one nevertheless because it shows what the hell is going on inside Syria. Perhaps for that reason alone Syrian Dust is worth reading.

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Filed under Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, Memoir, Middle East/North Africa