Secrets We Kept: Three Women of Trinidad tells the stories of the author, her mother, and her grandmother, who were all born in Trinidad and eventually moved to the US. It’s not a pretty story, as her grandfather was a violent man who ran roughshod over his family, her father, although less extreme, was also abusive, and the overall climate of Trinidad, as described in the book, is also laced with violence, especially against women.
I found the book very sad, and eventually without much direction. It was also challenging to read as it features large chunks of dialog in Trinidad dialect.
I greatly enjoyed other books by Buruma (here and here) and I was very disappointed by A Tokyo Romance, in which the author moves to Tokyo in 1975, officially to study cinema, and in reality to hang out with avant-garde theater troupes, watch porn movies, drink a lot, and occasionally play a gaijin vignette in small plays.
It’s all quite dreary.
The first author of Tears of Salt: A Doctor’s Story is a physician on the small Italian island of Lampedusa, where many migrants from Africa arrive, some healthy and others almost or completely dead, as they try to reach Europe. He gets to treat the sick and autopsy the dead, and often sees the children, relatives, and friends of the people he so recently pronounced dead. It’s not an easy life, and it’s not an easy story. The solution to the problem cannot be as simple as what he seems to suggest (open the border) and at the same time the personal stories are heart-wrenching.
Becoming Myself: A Psychiatrist’s Memoir retraces the author’s life, from his upbringing in a working class immigrant family in Washington, D.C., to a comfortable and successful life as a psychiatrist at Stanford Medical School, perfectly situated to participate in the vast changes in his field in the 60s.
Strangely enough, the doctor is often rigid in his assessments, and in particular so harsh on his uneducated parents. It’s not exactly their fault that they were uneducated, or even imperfect — and one would think that after a lifetime he would have found a way to embrace them regardless. He also seems mostly unaware of the great career sacrifices his wife made for his career and their family, although the zeitgeist of the time was vastly different. Still, it’s fascinating to read how a professor with four children, making $11,000 a year, could buy a house in Palo Alto (by the way, he seems completely aware of the luck he had in that department!), and how he cared and still care for this patients, at age 85.
If, like the author, you have dreamed of space ever since you saw the fuzzy pictures of the astronauts on the moon in July 1969, Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery is the perfect book to relive that dream. Except that, this time, you will hear about diaper time, having to wait for everything, and the heart-stopping quality of your 14-year old “emergency” message just before you lose contact with the ground. Scott Kelly spent a year in the space station where he became adept at fixing the toilet, noticing strange gaps between the US and Russian security protocols, and finding objects that disappeared minutes, days, sometimes year ago (it turns out that this floating business creates issues!) He mixes the stories about the mission with stories of his training, also lively and also a lesson in patience. Throughout the entire book, he never loses his awe of being in space, and that’s infectious.
The author of Gorilla and the Bird: A Memoir of Madness and a Mother’s Love is a public defender who routinely helps defendants with mental illness navigate the legal system — until he has a psychotic break and ends up in a locked mental yard, from which his mother, the Bird of the title, manages to extract him and helps him manage his illness, the complicated health options for bipolar disorders, and the sometime funny, sometimes tragic mishaps along the way to recovery. Because the author of this memoir is the patient himself, he makes it clear that, except in his worst moments, he understands quite clearly what is happening to him, even when he can’t control his behavior, which makes the story that much more poignant.
In Shock: From Doctor to Patient – What I Learned About Medicine’s Inhumanity is the story of the author’s harrowing experience that started with losing a baby and ended very nearly killing her — so much so that, once she finally got better, she had to have many reconstructive surgeries to correct a hasty sewing up since the surgeons thought she would not survive. What makes the story more than “just” a medical misadventure is that its author is herself a physician, and indeed on her very first day back on the job had to treat a patient with a story very similar to hers, and that patient did not make it. Throughout her tale she interjects commentary on how she was often treated poorly, even when the medical staff knew that she was one of theirs, and how she changed her approach and the approach of the residents under her care to address the issues she experienced first hand. We can only hope that every physician be as considerate and empathetic as she is. (Also, baby making is a dangerous undertaking.)