Archive for ‘Biography/Memoir’

February 2nd, 2015

Tolstoy’s False Disciple: The Untold Story of Leo Tolstoy and Vladimir Chertkov by Alexandra Popoff

by Gwen


When I was in school, I read The Death of Ivan Ilych and feel in love with Russian literature.  No, I think I fell in love with Russia in toto. How could one not with a beautiful and mysterious place with churches like the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood? Coolest.Name.Ever. My obsession led me to the first career goal I ever had, to work for the State Department in Russia. Then the wall came down and so did my enthusiasm. Anywho….


As the years have gone on, I’ve devoured other Russian works and have never been disappointed. (even though I still have issues with the practice of patronymic naming) Strangely, I’ve never really read a thing about the authors themselves, until now.

Tolstoy was an idol in his time and he created a social movement that garnered a ton of followers called Tolstoyans.

“To speak of “Tolstoyism,” to seek guidance, to inquire about my solution of questions, is a great and gross error. There has not been, nor is there any “teaching” of mine. There exists only the one eternal universal teaching of the Truth, which for me, for us, is especially clearly expressed in the Gospels…I advised this young lady to live not by my conscience, as she wished, but by her own” Tolstoy- What is Religion?

The top follower was Vladimir Chertkov and his Machiavellianism ended up ruling over Tolstoy, his work, legacy, and even his death as you will learn in Tolstoy’s False Disciple.

I found the power that Chertkov wielded over a person that founded his own social movement astounding. Tolstoy was arguably the greatest Russian writer and thinker and yet he was led around by the nose by this chameleon-like  upstart. Frightening, to say the least.

The book gave me a better understanding of the times they lived in, a new appreciation of Tolstoy and his work, and knocked the pedestal that I had him on down a few feet. It was an awesome study in how a person’s character can be so powerful even when they have no new ideas of their own to offer.  Chertkov was a vile human being in my book, but in no way does this make the book vile. It may make you want to go back in time and smack poor Leo on the head though…

There is also a not-so-favorable review on The New Yorker.

Sort of Like Gwen's Signature

August 17th, 2014

SheBooks ~ Out of Dublin by Ethel Rohan

by Gwen


I tend not to like short pieces because they leave me feeling unfulfilled and wanting more. However, when I learned about SheBooks this was the first title that caught my eye.  My Great-Great Grandparents came out of Ireland in the late 1800’s and settled in New York. Here was a contemporary emigration and not to the east coast, but to San Francisco, a city I have loved and lived in. I wondered why the author left and how she felt about NorCal. I worried that the short format wouldn’t allow me to grasp either answer.

Let me tell you, I cried. That’s right, Ethel Rohan was able to pluck my heart strings by bringing me back in my own time machine in less than 38 pages. It’s embarrassing; very few books make me cry, but this one had me balling and I’ll tell why.

This isn’t so much a story of going away as it is a story of coming home and taking care of those that took such wonderful care of you as a wee bairn. Rohan made every word count in recounting her childhood and the lengths she took to make her mother feel useful and uses just 4 teeny paragraphs to explain the burden that no child should have, little own, to themselves.

Fast forward to years later when first she loses her mother than perhaps the most heart wrenching of all, her father while back in Ireland. If was the most heartfelt, vulnerable, and touching few paragraphs of goodbye that I have ever read. Grab Out of Dublin if you love your family, if you have lost members of your family, or just because you could use a good cry. I did.

Out of Dublin by Ethel Rohan

Sort of Like Gwen's Signature

May 21st, 2012

In My Father’s Country by Saima Wahab

by Gwen

From the Hardcover edition

*If you have ever wanted to really be immersed in what it means to be a woman in Afghan culture, this is your book.

*If you have ever been curious about immigrants deal (or not deal) with the cultural clash when they come to the US. I don’t mean the red tape, but the women can show their faces, live alone, and receive phone calls from the opposite sex, sort of clashes. Whatever, this is your book.

*If you know nothing about the tortured history of Afghanistan and are wondering why in the heck we are there…this is your book.

*If women’s issues interest you, you guessed it, this is your book.

Saima Wahab’s father was arrested from his home in Kabul when she was three and they never saw him again. What was left of her family was shuttled around to other family homes and even took a tortuous journey to Pakistan until when she was fifteen, she was sent to her uncle’s home in Oregon to get an education.

Living in Oregon meant more freedom, but being in her Uncle’s home meant continual struggles between being American and being an Afghan woman. Conflicts arose in her own psyche, just where did she fit in and whom did she want to honor. She got her education, but was still lost and somewhat isolated from Americans.

Then the Americans invaded Afghanistan and Saima saw her chance to find just what her father had died for. Why had he been willing to speak out and give his life for the people of Afghanistan. What hadn’t she seen when she left her father’s country on the back of a donkey so many years ago. When the opportunity to work as a translator there comes up, she takes it, with some doubts, but tries not to look back.

What follows is the story of not only a people but a personal struggle to find her place in the world. As the fighting becomes more intense, Saima’s personal struggle deepens and she is able to put portions of her fractured identity into words. Should she leave her father’s culture behind or find a way to blend both?

Okay, the book as a whole was fascinating. I have read a few memoirs from women that grew up in the Middle East, but I have never thought of the conflict that goes on in their mind when dealing with two divergent cultures. Throw in the fact that shutting the door on her Afghan-ness would be like shutting the door on what her father had died for, and you can imagine the inner struggle.

So many memoirs you read are along the lines of “life there was horrible for women, then I moved here and I can wear jeans and am so happy.” This wasn’t that, Saima truly loves her country and understands it. What also shows through is that she loves America and understands many Americans. She tries to see herself as the bridge between.

Towards the end though, I have to admit, that I was starting not to like her. She is/was one of the few Pashtun English speakers and we are reminded of this again and again. Instead of say, trying to recruit more, she comes across as this sort of one woman crusade to save her country. Only she can do it and she knows better than any of the military. That semi-arrogance was a small price to pay for all that I was able to absorb.

Got this baby from TLC Book Tours



September 1st, 2011

What About The Boy? by Stephen Gallup

by Gwen

What About the Boy

What do you do when the “experts” have no answers or solutions for you? If the problem is something simple, like your car making a weird noise, the answer is easy. You take it to another mechanic.

What do you do when your child isn’t developing as fast as other children and the doctors not only have no idea what is wrong with him, but also have no suggestions on how to move forward, how to help him? With courage and determination, risking everything, Stephen Gallup and his wife Judy went to astounding lengths for their son.

Often, when reading a memoir or biography, I attempt to put myself in the subject’s shoes, pondering whether or not I would take the same steps that they did. I couldn’t even fathom what Stephen, Judy, and Joseph faced, yet was in awe that they were able to continue to sacrifice and move forward everyday into the the unknown. I mean, when you have a child, you tell yourself that you just want him or her to have ten fingers and toes, but inside you want so much more for them. What do you do when everything you dream about for them isn’t possible in the eyes of modern medicine? Do you give up? How could you?

Stephen Gallup and his wife refused to give up, refused to accept that Joseph couldn’t be “normal”, and continued to have big dreams for their son against all odds. They showed a determination to move beyond that I am not sure that I could muster myself, yet what choice did they have?

They took risks, with therapies, their future, their family’s approval, really with everything to not give up on Joseph and that is the beauty of this book. Nothing was more important than getting Joseph walking, talking, going to school. They refused to give up on him.

What About the Boy? is a profile in courage that is often hard to read. I can’t even imagine what it was to live through. There are parts of it that drag a bit, just as I am sure that the events did in the Gallup’s own struggle, but in the end, there is an accepted triumph that was worth all of the sacrifices. This family fought a battle pretty much alone and they should have had to. We expect modern medicine to have just about all of the answers and they don’t. We think that if they don’t have the answers, that we should just give up and we shouldn’t.

The Gallups never gave up on Joseph and none of us should ever just blindly accept that there are no answers.

What About the Boy? by Stephen Gallup

  • Paperback: 376 pages
  • Publisher: Lestrygonian Books (September 1, 2011)
  • ISBN-10: 0615431534
  • ISBN-13: 978-0615431536
June 9th, 2011

L.A. Noir by John Buntin

by Gwen

LA Noir

shortened goodreads blurb

“A fascinating examination of Los Angeles’s underbelly, the Mob, and America’s most admired–and reviled–police department, L.A. Noir is an enlightening, entertaining, and richly detailed narrative about the city originally known as El Pueblo de Nuestra Se–ora la Reina de los Angeles, “The Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels.”

I grew up in Orange County and my parents got their sea legs in the outskirts of LA, so the book jumped out at me at the library. Parker Center was the headquarters of the LAPD until 2009. I knew that, but had no idea who this Parker guy was. L.A. Noir solved that problem, but it was a bit painful.

Chief Bill Parker rose to power at the same time the city did and the Mob tried to. Gangster Mickey Cohen’s antics made for some interesting reading, but the majority of the book was totally “put-downable” for me.

I wish that I could really put my finger on why this book was more of a chore or something that I just had to soldier through; as opposed to the history of my city. There were one thing though that stood out…..and it wasn’t the author’s fault….
Chief Parker was, in my humble opinion, an ass. I continue to be baffled why the guy could be so revered that he had a building named after him with this portrayal.

Closet racist, alcoholic, stubborn, opinionated, un-compassionate, verbally and a few times, physically abusive, couldn’t take criticism, totally obsessed with the Red Menace, Communism; I could go on and on about Parker.


“It is estimated that by 1970,” he told viewers of ABC’s Newsmaker program on August 14th, “forty-five percent of the metropolitan area will be Negro; that excludes San Fernando Valley….If you want any protection for your home and family, you’re going to have to get in and support a strong police department. If you don’t, come 1970, God help you!”

Mickey Cohen was the bright spot and only source of laughter in all of L.A. Noir. Even evangelist Billy Graham  loved the guy. In Mickey’s own words, “I wasn’t the worse. Neither was I the tops.”

My usual goal, in reading nonfiction, is to get a better understanding of the person/event and how they fit into the context of their era. I don’t have the love the subject when I am done, but I can’t think of any other time that I have been completely repulsed by one as I was with Parker. The guy reminded me of J. Edgar Hoover in many ways and Buntin pointed this out a few times as well. This distaste made it a really tough read for me and I just couldn’t understand why peopled backed him and continue to laud him. That is where I think L.A. Noir fell short for me. I found myself struggling to pick the book up and fighting not to put it down.

I wouldn’t call it “fascinating” like the blurb describes, more like shocking and able to leave a bad taste in your mouth about the luminary figure of the LAPD. I will also be asking my parents about their experiences with the riots, LAPD, and general feelings about growing up in LA. Any book that gives me something to talk about with them besides religion, current politics, and that my job isn’t a real job because I don’t wear pants with zippers is a bonus in my view.

Looking at other reviews, this seems like one of those books you either love or hate. Check them out at

L.A. Noir by John Buntin

  • Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Broadway; 1 edition (April 6, 2010)
  • ISBN-10: 0307352080
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307352088