Archive for ‘Biography/Memoir’

June 1st, 2011

Genius of Place The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted by Justin Martin

by Gwen

Genius of Place

I will give you the blurb first because they say it much more succinctly than I can…

Frederick Law Olmsted is arguably the most important historical figure that the average American knows the least about. Best remembered for his landscape architecture, from New York’s Central Park to Boston’s Emerald Necklace to Stanford University’s campus, Olmsted was also an influential journalist, early voice for the environment, and abolitionist credited with helping dissuade England from joining the South in the Civil War. This momentous career was shadowed by a tragic personal life, also fully portrayed here.Most of all, he was a social reformer. He didn’t simply create places that were beautiful in the abstract. An awesome and timeless intent stands behind Olmsted’s designs, allowing his work to survive to the present day. With our urgent need to revitalize cities and a widespread yearning for green space, his work is more relevant now than it was during his lifetime. Justin Martin restores Olmsted to his rightful place in the pantheon of great Americans.

Okay, so I knew that Olmsted was the man behind Central Park, the Biltmore and had a hand in the 1993 World’s Expedition in Chicago. (thanks to The Devil in The White City) The rest, I had no idea about. The dude was a dynamo!

Part of me really wants to tell you all about Olmsted, but really, I need to focus on Justin Martin’s work. One of the greatest things a biographer can do is not only cover that particular person’s life, but give us an idea of the time that he or she lived in. I want to close the book with a better understanding of the era that the person lived in, so that I am not comparing their achievements to more contemporary people. I want to see the bigger picture, if you get my idea.

Martin does this in spades. You get a sense of the 19th century; the innovations, the turmoil, the way that people went about forging their own path, the basic feeling that nothing was impossible and that the American’s were leading the charge into a truly golden age. Olmsted was a man of his time. The title/job description of Landscape Architect hadn’t even been invented until he came along. The idea that places should be made beautiful and accessible to all people was unheard of for the most part.

Another thing that I really appreciated about Genius of Place was that Martin didn’t play armchair Psychologist. Olmsted suffered some great tragedies in his life and from various illnesses. While Martin did point these afflictions out, he wasn’t quick to confirm a diagnosis like many biographers are apt to do. So many writers are ready to slap a contemporary label on things and I really think that it leads us down an incorrect path when trying to understand a person and their period.

I learned so much, each chapter was a revelation. Not only do I have a better understanding of Olmsted and a larger view of his work, but it radically changed the image I had in my head about the Pre-Civil War South. Martin never went on and on about stuff that I couldn’t care less about or get mired in the minutia. He was a dynamo, just like his subject.

Genius of Place is my favorite non-fiction/biography read this year. Like the man it is about, the book was enlightening.

Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted by Justin Martin

  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press (May 31, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0306818817
  • ISBN-13: 978-0306818813
  • March 11th, 2011

    Gated Grief by Leila Levinson

    by Gwen

    Gated Grief

    The Daughter of a GI Concentration Camp Liberator Discovers a Legacy of Trauma

    I wish that Levinson could have written this sooner, but I am grateful that I read it now.

    After the death of her father, Dr. Reuben Levinson, Leila and her brother found some horrific pictures in their fathers medical office. They were shots from the concentration camp that her father, as Captain Levinson at the time, liberated in the aftermath of WWII.

    The pictures haunted her and led her on a quest to try to understand what it meant to be a liberator. Pictures don’t do justice to what her father and other GIs faced. She needed to understand how those pictures changed the men that left hopeful and ready to fight for the freedom of all people. What she found brought her closer to her father, closer to understanding the man that told her never to cry and to just move forward, closer to answers to the questions she always wanted to ask; needed to ask, but never did.

    Levinson interviewed many liberators, attended reunions, looked back at past written histories, and finally visited the camp where her father attended victims before having a nervous breakdown in 1945. She wasn’t just searching for how being a liberator changed her father and how it effected other liberators, but what effect that change had on her childhood.

    It has been estimated that a minimum of 300,000 GIs witnessed the camps in one way or another. For the most part, none of these (mostly) men were warned or prepared for what they were going to see, they were just told to go there. What they saw, what they smelled, what they felt, is still something that many can’t talk about. Levinson noticed that many of the people she interviewed switched into third person when they were describing it. They were still trying to distance themselves from it decades later.

    A phrase that Levinson used stuck with me while I was reading and still runs through my mind at odd moments.

    “The liberators became prisoners of the camps they liberated.”

    On coming home, the liberators didn’t talk about what they saw, they seldom shared with their families. A part of them had fractured off, never to be seen again. The trauma of what they saw effected them and their children that might not have even been born yet. Most took the attitude of the time that you just have to forget and move forward. The thing is, they couldn’t forget and while they were moving forward, it was as a vastly different human being than the brightly smiling soldier that they had been when they left for the war.

    This book touched me in a personal way as well and that is why I wish that it had been written sooner. My grandfather fought in the Pacific and never talked about it. While I was always curious and wanted to ask him about his service, it was sort of an unspoken rule that I shouldn’t. When he passed away, we found pictures tucked away in an ammo box that, while not of concentration camps, were frankly, I am embarrassed to say what they depicted in detail. Why had he saved these pictures of mutilated Japanese soldiers? Why had he never talked about his experiences other than the USO dance where he met my grandmother and the time he spent on the base in New Jersey? It was as if there was this whole other person that fought in the war that we never knew.

    I wish that I had had the courage to ask him before his passing. It might have explained a lot about the person that I thought I knew, but obviously, didn’t.

    “The liberators became prisoners of the camps they liberated.”

    Gated Grief is a study of trauma. Trauma that still affects many of us as the children and grandchildren of the veterans of WWII. The book is deep, but not depressing. It left me strangely hopeful. It means that we have finally acknowledged that veterans, of all wars, are left with scars that we can’t always see and that we need to acknowledge those wounds just as we address the obvious ones.

    We have come a long way from the attitude of just putting the horrors of war behind us and moving forward. In the 40’s we weren’t prepared to deal with the psychiatric casualties of war.Then, lobotomies were the norm and around 50,000 veterans underwent the procedure. I can only hope that we are better armed now, but I am still not so sure. Levinson was able to shine a light on her upbringing, but also shined a light on an important subject for all of us.

    Gated Grief by Leila Levinson
    Hardcover: 266 pages
    Publisher: Cable Publishing; 1 edition (January 31, 2011)
    ISBN-10: 1934980544
    ISBN-13: 978-1934980545

    This book was given to my by PR by the Book, but was already on my radar because of my interest in the effects of trauma. The thoughts are my own. I have read a few books on the subject, which I am now realizing that I never reviewed here. (bad Gwen) You can read my short review of Denial: A Memoir of Terror by Jessica Stern at the Sacramento Book Review site.

    December 1st, 2010

    Buzz: The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley by Jeffrey Spivak

    by Gwen




    Buzz Berkeley was born to be in the theater. He was born to actors, Frank Enos and Gertrude Berkeley, and his mother was determined to keep him away from a stage career.

    With no acting credits and absolutely no dance training he burst forth as a dance director shortly a few roles post service in World War I. His mother found herself unable to keep her boy off of the stage, but was never far from his side. His story is one that Hollywood dreams were made of at the time. Sam Goldwyn came calling in 1930 and the first picture he worked on for them was WHOOPEE!.

    At the time, movie musicals were stale and outdated, but with a touch of the Buzz magic, they came alive. Most credit Berkeley with saving and then recreating a whole new genre of the movie musical. The book is heavy into his technique and art, but pretty light when it comes to fleshing out the picture of just who Busby Berkeley was as a man. If you are a lover of musicals, this is the book for you.

    My one wish is that I could have gotten to know more about him, what he really thought about his drinking, his many many marriages, his being put on trial almost three times for vehicular manslaughter. It was is viewing Buzz from a far and only being able to see the magical numbers he created for the screen.


    Buzz: The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley by Jeffrey Spivak

  • Hardcover: 408 pages
  • Publisher: The University Press of Kentucky (December 1, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0813126436
  • ISBN-13: 978-0813126432
  • signature_thumb[1]

    September 1st, 2010

    Hiroshima in the Morning by Rahna Reiko Rizzuto ~Review

    by Gwen


    From Goodreads:

    In June 2001 Rahna Reiko Rizzuto went to Hiroshima in search of a deeper understanding of her war-torn heritage. She planned to spend six months there, interviewing the few remaining survivors of the atomic bomb. A mother of two young boys, she was encouraged to go by her husband, who quickly became disenchanted by her absence.

    It is her first solo life adventure, immediately exhilarating for her, but her research starts off badly. Interviews with the hibakusha* feel rehearsed, and the survivors reveal little beyond published accounts. Then the attacks on September 11 change everything. The survivors’ carefully constructed memories are shattered, causing them to relive their agonizing experiences and to open up to Rizzuto in astonishing ways.”

    That was enough to make me want to read it, but there is more.

    Separated from family and country while the world seems to fall apart, Rizzuto’s marriage begins to crumble as she wrestles with her ambivalence about being a wife and mother. Woven into the story of her own awakening are the stories of Hiroshima in the survivors’ own words. The parallel narratives explore the role of memory in our lives and show how memory is not history but a story we tell ourselves to explain who we are.”

    My take:

    Hiroshima in the Morning started out really slow for me and frankly, Reiko’s constant questioning of herself and her motives for taking trip was a tad annoying. Seriously, she is a published author and a mother of two, how could she have been so insure of herself and her identity?

    Slowly, I felt a change in her thinking and that brought about a change in my opinion. While 9/11 made a big impact in how the people she was interviewing treated her, I could also see her true identity emerging. Truly, it was like watching a butterfly come out of a cocoon and I hate butterfly analogies, so I don’t use them lightly. She began to stand up for herself and what she wanted, not just go along with the flow or try to placate her husband.

    The book is less about Hiroshima or 9/11 and more about a woman defining herself. Call it a self-exploration or a memoir while horrific events are being studied and still happening in the background.

    I could go on and on about what stuck with me and made me think. She has an interesting way of looking at things and processing them in her own mind, as well as dealing with so much inner turmoil at a time that our country as a whole was in flux.

    Hiroshima in the Morning is a book that will float around in my mind for a long time, not only for what she wrote, but because how she made me look back at my own memories, questioning how I let them define me….if I choose to let them define me at all.

    From Hiroshima in the Morning….

    “I spent the last seven months assembling. Making a life collage, and hoping that, if I step back far enough, if others do, an image will appear. There are a million facts, a million stories: every writer will find a different one in the same rubble. Each of us will reconceive the story. We will build an argument; we will raise a truth. It may not resemble “the truth,” if there is such a thing-we may mistake someone else’s opinion for fact; we may be lying or hoping for the best.”

    Hiroshima in the Morning by Rhana Reiko Rizzuto

    For info on the author, a trailer, & much more check out The Feminist Press

    Just released today!

    • Paperback: 320 pages
    • Publisher: The Feminist Press at CUNY (September 1, 2010)
    • Language: English
    • ISBN-10: 1558616675
    • ISBN-13: 978-1558616677



    May 13th, 2010

    The Bucolic Plague: From Drag Queen to Goat Farmer by Josh Kilmer-Purcell ~Review

    by Gwen


    What happens when two New Yorkers (one an ex–drag queen) do the unthinkable: start over, have a herd of kids, and get a little dirty?

    The Bucolic Plague starts off with the most hilarious Authors Caution that I have ever read.

    This book is not about living your dream. It will not inspire you. You will not be emboldened to attempt anything more than making a fresh pot of coffee.
    The author reminds you that there are plenty of other memoirs out there written by courageous souls who have broken with their past, poetically leaving behind things such as:
    1. Drugs and/or Drinking
    2. Career Ennui
    3. Bad Relationships
    ….and have successfully achieved goals such as:
    1. Creative Fulfillment
    2. The Simple Life
    3. Jesus’s Approval
    The author notes that those memoirs are generally full of more shit than a bard at the end of a long winter.

    The Bucolic Plague had me from that page and I couldn’t put it down. Part memoir, part making fun of the things that we all try and fail the first time around, it kept me cheering for the pair. You find yourself cheering for them at the same time you are could I pull this off?

    Josh Kilmer-Purcell, a former drag queen and current ad executive and his partner, Dr. Brent Ridge, formerly a Vice President of Healthy Living at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, were on an apple picking trip in upstate New York when they stumbled upon the Beekman Mansion in Sharon Springs. It was love at first site with the historic home completed in 1802.

    The pair thought that it would make a great getaway home and that it would be fun to become gentleman farmers. How hard could it be, right? Let me tell you right now, the fun really begins when you are cleaning up poop covered goats with wet naps for their debut on the Martha Stewart show and gets better from there.
    What was a bonus to The Bucolic Plague was the over all message Kilmer-Purcell learns and shares with us. That it isn’t about being perfect, like Martha Stewart, or about having the “best life” like Oprah, it is about living the best way for you.

    If you pick up one memoir this year, make it this one. You’ll laugh, you will encounter zombie flies and you will learn some very important things.

    Reblog this post [with Zemanta]