Archive for category Biography

Review: Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table

Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table
Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table by Ruth Reichl
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Written back when food memoirs were not a genre, this book is a funny and fascinating recounting of the life of Ruth Reichl, whose formative years in food were based upon her mother’s atrocious cooking and Ruth’s job of keeping people from eating what her mother made for dinner parties.

Along the way toward adulthood, Reichl deals with her mother’s bipolar disorder, left with a series of housekeepers, family friends and even a French boarding school in Canada. By the time she’s in high school (and for stretches of time when she was nine years old), Ruth was left to fend for herself while her parents traveled, went to parties or pursued their own interests.

Friends and caregivers showed Ruth the wonders of good food, and the book is a journey through her education about how good food can be, how good life can be, and how she could overcome anything in her background to become her own person.

 

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Review: Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life by Steve Martin

Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life
Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life by Steve Martin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve always loved Steve Martin’s comedy – his surreal and silly standup routines were a favorite of mine in high school, years after he’d already moved on to movies. The book is a touching account of his life as the son of strait-laced Texas Baptists who moved to California, how he escaped from his stifling and disapproving father by learning magic and working at places like Disneyland and Knotts Berry Farm, and how he developed a comedy act that changed how comedy worked for a whole generation of performers who arrived after him.

This is a funny, touching, honest and beautiful story, laced throughout with Martin’s weird and self-deprecating humor.

One of my favorite quotes from the book:

“I didn’t yet know its name but found out later it was called Flower Power, and I was excited to learn that we were now living in the Age of Aquarius, an age when, at least astrologically, the world would be taken over by macramé. Anticorporate, individual, and freak-based, it proposed that all we had to do was love each other and there would be no more wars or strife. Nothing could have been newer or more appealing. The vast numbers of us who changed our thoughts and lives for this belief proved that, yes, it is possible to fool all of the people some of the time.”

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Review: Catch Me If You Can

Catch Me If You Can
Catch Me If You Can by Frank W. Abagnale
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One of the few books where I can say I enjoyed the movie way more, but still, this is a fascinating story (mostly true) of how a teenage boy in the 1950s managed to run away from home, impersonate an airline pilot and a doctor and a lawyer….become an expert forger…and get away with it for more than a decade. Originally released in 1980, the book was a hit, but the movie really shone. Read the book if you don’t mind outdated lingo and self-congratulatory Holden Caulfield-esque details; but afterward, be sure to see the movie if you haven’t already.

 

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Review: Blood, Bones and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef

Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef
Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this book after receiving it from a friend, and I now include it with “Heat” by Bill Buford, “Kitchen Confidential” by Anthony Bourdain, and “My Life in France” by Julia Child as one of the best chef memoir/biographies I have ever read.

But this? This is one of the best written memoirs of any genre I’ve ever read, in that it is raw, engaging, hilarious, moving and absolutely fearless. Gabrielle Hamilton describes her bizarre family, her derelict upbringing, her stumbling road to being a chef…all in graphically beautiful and lyrical prose that reinforces that she’s not like anyone else at all. In any way.

Her descriptions of the writer’s workshop small groups in college absolutely unraveled me with laughter. Her description of a reunion with her meddling mother gave me probably the hugest laugh I’d gotten from any book thus far. In fact, there were many times I woke my husband with my smothered and wheezing laughter while reading this book in bed.

And yet, there were parts of the book that so moved me I cried. Gabrielle Hamilton is a gifted writer and gifted chef, and happily, both gifts were equally on display in this book.

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Review: Confessions of a Left-Handed Man: An Artist’s Memoir

Confessions of a Left-Handed Man: An Artist's Memoir
Confessions of a Left-Handed Man: An Artist’s Memoir by Peter Selgin
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Meh. I thought a couple of the pieces were good, especially the one about him being a caricature artist, but the rest were rambling and didn’t do anything for me. By the time I got to the one about his prostate, I was ready to throw in the towel and when he opened the essay with permission for the squeamish to not read it, I took that as permission to not finish the book at all, with about 25 percent left unread.

Advance Reader Copy from publisher

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Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m late to the party on this book and am kicking myself for having waited so long to read it.

In 1951, a black woman named Henrietta Lacks went to the free clinic at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins hospital for what she told the doctor was “a knot in my womb.” They dismissed her worries as women’s troubles, since a cursory exam showed no problems. Henrietta, the mother of five, was not soothed. She knew something was wrong.

After a few more visits, she began to bleed. She went back, and the doctors found a strangely shaped tumor in her cervix. Taking tissue samples and a biopsy, they sent Henrietta home to await results. It was cancer. Early stage cancer.

By the time she got back to the hospital, the cancer was growing at an alarming rate. Meanwhile, in a lab in Baltimore, a researcher (Dr. George Gey) was watching the cells taken from Henrietta’s tumor also growing monstrously–in test tubes and petri dishes. He was ecstatic – they were growing and multiplying and doubling every 24 hours in a culture medium, and he knew he was seeing something historic in the scientific world: immortal cells.

Most cells divide about fifty times before dying. Scientists had trouble maintaining cell lines for research for this reason. But the cells of Henrietta Lacks (or HeLa cells) were a tremendous boon for science. Soon, Dr. Gey’s discovery was gaining the attention of the research world. He gave away tubes of HeLa cells, which other researchers used to conduct experiments with diseases, drugs and viruses. Another lab perfected a culture medium that could be standardized, and then HeLa cells began to be a marketable commodity. They were growing and dividing so fast that they became a cash cow: and invaluable to the science world.

The problem: they couldn’t help Henrietta, who died only months after her diagnosis. She left behind five children and a husband, and was buried in an unmarked grave. Worse yet, the cells that were rocking the science world and making research labs commercially wealthy had been taken from Henrietta without her consent, and for nearly 30 years, her family had no idea what a revolution HeLa cells had caused. In fact, they had no idea HeLa cells existed.

This book follows two parallel stories: the story of Henrietta Lacks the person and her family’s struggle after her death; and the story of HeLa cells and their spread throughout the world, helping scientists develop the polio vaccine, identify the HPV virus, develop chemotherapy drugs, and myriad other discoveries to advance medical science.

When Henrietta’s family finds out about the cells and the fact that nobody informed Henrietta about their existence, their commercial potential or how they would be used, they were outraged. What followed were years of further exploitation of the family for journalistic purposes, scientists wanting samples of their DNA for more research, con artists attempting to profit from their situation and more.

The book’s author, Rebecca Skloot, spent years researching HeLa and Henrietta. She worked diligently to be introduced to the family, and became close to all of Henrietta’s children. And she did what nobody else had: she wrote the book with full cooperation from the family and with part of the proceeds, she established a foundation to help the Lacks family with medical and other expenses.

The book opens a complicated debate about the role of human tissue in scientific research, how and whether anyone should profit from the use of their cells, informed consent for medical procedures and a host of other ethical questions. It showcases the terrible exploitation of black people by the medical system (including the Tuskeegee Institute’s syphillis research on unwitting black subjects) and the advances made in the past 50 years toward improving the way patients’ privacy and dignity are protected.

This is a fascinating and well-written, exhaustively researched book that manages to combine science and human interest without being dry or maudlin. One of the best books I’ve read this year.

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Review: Tom Thumb: The Remarkable True Story of a Man in Miniature

Tom Thumb: The Remarkable True Story of a Man in MiniatureTom Thumb: The Remarkable True Story of a Man in Miniature by George Sullivan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Meh…it was okay. I received an advance galley from the publisher and the formatting was nutty so it was difficult to look past that.

Having gotten that out of the way, I found the story interesting. I had no prior knowledge of this character from history, how P.T. Barnum made him famous and how he traveled the world.

The book read like a school report, with little insight into the characters, little attempt by the author to inject any humanity into any of the subjects. It appears this author has cranked out many books this way, and that’s fine. I just recall reading Darin Strauss’s excellent “Chang and Eng: A Novel” based on the lives of Chang and Eng Bunker, the original Siamese Twins. The book conveyed all the life events of these men but made it compelling and vivid, in a way that let the reader stand right next to the characters during the story.

This book seemed to be not much more than a dry recitation of facts in chronological order, accompanied by photos. And hey, that’s fine. But with such wildly amazing subject matter, there was a lot more room for creativity here.

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