Retired English professor Sisney’s (Growth Through Fiction: Short Stories for the Basic Reader, 2008) improbably comic memoir about a black woman’s career in white-dominated academia.
Born into a working-class African-American community in Kentucky during the waning Jim Crow years, Sisney traversed a veritable cultural minefield to get her doctorate and a tenured professorship. In five decades at “white institutions,” including 30 years at California Polytechnic State University, Sisney faced formidable sexism and racism. The author blends seriousness and humor when documenting life as a double-minority professor in the 1970s, ’80 and ’90s. She gives fellow professors entertaining pseudonyms such as Superfly, a white male professor who worked overtime to convey his coolness via “some kind of jive talking, black hip language.” She occasionally switched to black vernacular to “fix his old white ass,” a typical example of the author’s wry way of coping with insufferable colleagues. Sisney critiques culture and politics with similar hilarity, describing, for instance, her desire to administer a “No Fool Left Behind” test to former President George W. Bush to assess his literary aptitude. Even plentiful parentheses, a couple of long-running chapters and overly detailed accounts of academic committee meetings fail to dampen the farcical spirit that animates the book. Beneath all this humor, however, is an unflinching account of the serious discriminatory practices that fester in the supposedly enlightened ivory tower. Although primarily about her career, the narrative also touches on Sisney’s personal life, with particularly poignant reflections on her fraught relationship with her mother. The book brims with pop-culture references and, at times, peculiar and funny meditations on topics ranging from contemporary American sexuality to O.J. Simpson’s murder trial.
With allusions to the black literary canon and chapter titles drawn from African-American music, Sisney’s tragicomic memoir speaks to a diverse audience.
A former prisoner recounts his years in the Soviet gulag in this memoir.
In this English translation of reminiscences originally recorded in 1970, Sokolenko shares stories from his years of imprisonment for political offenses during the Stalin regime. (A biographical note explains that Sokolenko was exonerated in 1956, when it was concluded that there was no basis for his original conviction.) The narrative does not follow Sokolenko’s imprisonment chronologically but is made up of a series of vignettes, with Sokolenko blending his own experiences into the stories of his fellow prisoners and their guards. These true stories capture both the horrific experience and bitter humor of Russia under Stalin, as committed socialists, black-market businessmen and ordinary people struggled with the changing definition of “enemy of the state.” Sokolenko’s narrative clearly demonstrates that the corruption and absurdity of the Soviet system confronted prisoners inside the gulag as well as outside—Sokolenko was often forbidden to use his agricultural experience, even though the camp was expected to grow its own food; medicinal stores of vodka were used for a prison guards’ party; a corrupt and incompetent gulag administrator was finally removed from his position, only to be reinstated because it was a crime for anyone to challenge his commitment to the socialist cause. Throughout the book, the tone is matter-of-fact, allowing the events described, rather than any elegant prose, to work on readers’ emotions. This was a wise decision by the author, who does not overwhelm the prisoners’ anecdotes with unnecessary commentary. (In contrast, the book’s footnotes, which decipher for the contemporary reader many of the names and policies Sokolenko mentions, are a useful addition, and the text could easily have accommodated more.) The result is a clear, bracing depiction, but not a maudlin one, of one of the darker chapters of modern history.
Skillfully portrays the bleakness of the prison system with an appreciation for the dark humor that allowed the author to survive it.
Wyllie (Bertram Goodhue, 2007, etc.) moves away from architectural histories to document the life of her son, Andrew, who persevered and thrived despite Down syndrome.
When the hospital staff delayed bringing Wyllie her firstborn child after his birth in 1959, she was immediately uneasy, and rightfully so: Andrew was diagnosed as a mongoloid, or what is now known as having Down syndrome. Troubled by the doctor’s explanation that “sometimes the best policy is to inform the mother, before she even sees her baby, that the child has died and then place him immediately in an institution,” she and her husband decide to keep their son at home and raise him as normally as possible. Wyllie details the early struggles with Andrew, from difficulties nursing to apprehension over what their family, friends and neighbors might think. She recounts their lengthy search for a school program to fit Andrew’s capabilities and their great fortune in finding Lambs Farm, a still-operating facility where Andrew lived happily for most of his adult life. Wyllie’s writing is lucid and remarkably forthright. She doesn’t shy away from the negatives, such as her frustrations and mistakes as the parent of a special needs child, or her concerns that her other, “normal” children were somehow being slighted. She also conveys the grief she faced in the tragic cancer death of her 14-month-old second child. The book features Andrew’s writing and drawings, letters from his teachers and co-workers, and interviews with many of the people in his life, which provide an intimate look at his intellectual, emotional and physical development. As a comparison, Wyllie also chronicles the experiences of two younger children, one born in 1980 and one in 1994, who also suffer from Down syndrome. Her account of the history and science behind the disorder is thoroughly researched yet highly readable, and she evenhandedly discusses the possible impacts of modern prenatal genetic testing. Of her ongoing struggle for better resources, Wyllie remembers that “the most difficult task was to capture the interest of the average person who does not have a special needs child.” Transcending this aim, her book is as richly absorbing for casual readers as for caregivers and loved ones of Down syndrome children and adults.
This cleareyed, intelligent memoir is an invaluable resource for anyone whose life is affected by a developmental disability.
An award-winning television writer and producer reflects on his prolific career.
Throughout the 1970s and '80s, many of the biggest hits on network television were mystery programs. Long-running shows such as Columbo and Murder, She Wrote commanded large audiences week after week, and even short-lived shows such as the 1975 series Ellery Queen had devoted cult followings. In this autobiography, mystery novelist Fischer (Pray For Us Sinners, 2013, etc.) recounts his time as a writer and producer for these and other programs and discusses the many people he met along the way. The author focuses primarily on his career in Hollywood, starting with his early success as the writer of a 1971 TV movie of the week called The Last Child and ending with his retirement shortly after a long tenure as a TV writer and producer. The narrative flows briskly as Fischer tells of writing episodes of famous programs such as Marcus Welby, M.D. and winning an Edgar Award and two Golden Globes for Murder, She Wrote. The author also discusses his work on other promising but less-successful shows; the chapters dealing with The Eddie Capra Mysteries from 1978 and the 1987 series The Law and Harry McGraw (starring Jerry Orbach) offer insights into how programs’ fates can be guided by both ratings and network politics. Overall, Fischer provides an engaging glimpse into the interpersonal relationships that enriched his life and career; for example, the camaraderie Fischer shared with TV stars Angela Lansbury and Peter Falk developed into long-standing friendships. Fischer further pays homage to his love of film and television by including a trivia question at the end of each chapter.
A warm, affectionate autobiography that will likely appeal to TV history buffs.
A shocking glimpse into the mind of a victim of psychological and physical torture at the hands of the Hungarian secret police under Stalinism.
Töttösy's first memoir, translated by Szablya, delves into his psyche under the extreme stress of torture, as well as his mental destabilization as a result of hallucinogenic drugs he ingested under duress in 1952 and ’53.During Stalin’s reign, the Hungarian secret police, the AVH, were utterly ruthless in extracting confessions from their political prisoners. Töttösy was a victim of their so-called truth serums, which, coupled with tactics such as repeatedly beating him with clubs, caused him to manifest symptoms of schizophrenia. A voice began speaking in his head, commanding him to tell the truth. Each time he spoke, he was beaten, often so brutally he welcomed the passage to unconsciousness as a brief respite from torture. Mysteriously, he managed to survive; despite the voice in his head forcing him to confess to a conspiracy, it seemed to repeatedly save his life by warning him against the dangers of his actions. Töttösy's resilience will stagger even the most stoic reader. As the memoir progresses and his insanity clashes with the absurdity of the punishments enacted by the secret police, his frenzied mind almost becomes a force of good against the evil madness of their actions. The fact that his memory remained so sharp in the grip of mental illness and abuse is miraculous. Szablya’s fluid translation carries the weight of historical importance, providing deep insights into the hidden brutality of the AVH. More information and research about the Hungarian regime may have strengthened the work’s readability to those unfamiliar with the surrounding history, but this unflinching portrayal of inhumanity will capture anyone’s attention.
A courageous account of torture and insanity that beams with hope of a soul’s survival.
A major motion-picture executive tells stories of his work on some of the 20th century’s most famous films.
Picker, a former president of United Artists, was born into a family renowned for its substantial contributions to the film industry. His father worked as chief booker and buyer for the Loew’s New York City theater chain, affording young Picker complete and free access to all movies released in its theaters. After spending his college years studying and working in the film industry, the author joined his uncle, a film executive, at United Artists in 1951.Picker humbly describes his quick ascent from intern to assistant to executive and then describes his experiences on various major films, including stories about industry people, business transactions and production. Throughout, Picker’s passion for movies, and his respect for the artists who create them, is endearingly evident, and he frequently states how thankful he is for his experiences. He even reflects positively, if a little remorsefully, about movies that United Artists didn’t pick up, calling them “the ones that got away,” such as The Graduate (1967) and Planet of the Apes (1968).At times, the abundance of business and financial details may be confusing to readers who aren’t well-versed in film industry jargon. However, most will likely enjoy Picker’s insider stories about the production of such films as Midnight Cowboy (1969), the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and the James Bond franchise. His appropriately cinematic tone carries readers through fast-paced, dramatic stories, and his colorful, opinionated descriptions of those he encounters are highly entertaining. Funny anecdotes about such luminaries as Woody Allen, Steve Martin and Ingmar Bergman, for example, provide readers with rare glimpses of these famous figures’ unique personalities.
A thoroughly entertaining look at how artistic visions, strong personalities and business acumen can create great films.
Environmental writer Shabecoff’s (A Fierce Green Fire, 2003, etc.) memoir is informed by his passionate, decades-old interest in the natural (and sometimes urban) environment—what it means to us and how humans have worked assiduously to destroy it.
Each essay describes and comments upon one of the many places where Shabecoff has resided or at least visited in a long career as a writer for the New York Times. These chapters include the summer place he and his wife built in the Berkshires (“The Best Place”), the Bronx neighborhoods where he grew up, the Catskills where, every summer, young Shabecoff and his family escaped the sweltering city, and his sojourns as a journalist in Germany, Japan, Washington, D.C., and many other locales. Toward the end of his career at the Times, he became interested in ecology and continued that interest into his pseudo-retirement. Now nearing 80, he finds it’s time to look back, sometimes fondly, sometimes angrily. Shabecoff is neither a fanatic nor a purist: “I like my wilderness not too wild,” and “I believe in the sanctity of life, but I make exceptions for biting insects.” Over the years, “civilization” encroached on his Berkshire retreat, but he accepts that inevitability with good grace. He is, however, often nostalgic for the environments of his childhood. He now sees the Bronx as a dysfunctional slum, although in his childhood, it had lively ethnic neighborhoods, good schools and clean streets. Set mostly in Washington, D.C., “Every Place” tells the story of the author cutting his teeth as an environmental writer, and he describes the often bitter journalistic wrangling, beginning with the Reagan administration. There’s no love lost between him and conservative administrations whose goal was to privatize everything and give powerful industries free rein. In fact, Shabecoff—who’s rubbed elbows with numerous movers and shakers over the years—never pulls his punches, calling out those he sees on the side of the angels and those not. Readers will also enjoy 10 pages of black-and-white family photos, including Philip and Alice at their beloved Berkshire getaway, which gives the book an extra human touch. As expected from a man who’s dealt with words his whole adult life, the writing is consistently graceful, with rarely a false step. “The Last Place,” for instance, begins on an elegiac note related to mortality, then slowly builds into as bracing a jeremiad against greed and stupidity as readers are likely to find anywhere.
A must-read for anyone interested in the environment—shouldn’t that mean everyone?
In horse lover and activist Normile’s memoir (co-authored with seasoned writer Lindner), she fights for the humane treatment of ex-racehorses.
Compelled by the idea of owning a thoroughbred, Normile acquires “Baby” from an ailing breeder, with the stipulation that she races him. Driven by a competitive spirit rather than financial gain, her main priority is ensuring her new horse’s well-being. Normile becomes indoctrinated in the early 1990s subculture of Detroit horse racing—and the corner-cutting and corruption that lurk in the unregulated sport. Her tender love for Baby compares to a mother’s love for her child who’s all the more vulnerable due to his inability to express himself. Baby shows promise as a winner, but due to a series of unsavory experiences, he never reaches his potential. He eventually meets a tragic, untimely end resulting from negligence on the track. This heart-wrenching loss launches Normile into a fight to protect other horses from the same fate. She’s motivated further when she learns some dark truths behind the industry, like the legal practice that has retired racehorses being slaughtered and sold for meat. Ultimately, she helms a nonprofit rescue that matches retired thoroughbreds with new owners. Like many tireless and committed activists, she sacrifices her family relationships and personal well-being for her cause. With the help of Lindner’s first class storytelling, action and emotion equally drive this compelling tale that will bring on the waterworks for any animal lover. The horses Normile loves are portrayed as dynamically as human beings, with imagined dialogue Normile gleans from their body language. Early in the book, she describes Baby’s departure from his mother and siblings: “There were cries and whinnies from the other horses as the trailers left. ‘Where are you going? We thought you were home to stay,’ ” the others horses are imagined saying. “Baby himself didn’t appear to be nervous. ‘I’ll be back,’ he whinnied confidently. ‘Just gone for a bit—have to make my mark.’ ”
A touching narrative that transcends its subject matter.
Former stage designer Burlingame (Two Seeing Eye Dogs Take Manhattan, 2012) recalls the highs and lows of his time on Broadway.
“Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly and I had to design,” the author confides in the opening chapter of this elegant, amusing memoir. In 1940, when he was 5 years old, his father took him to see a performance of the Gilbert and Sullivan opera The Mikado, after which the author returned home to build his own version of a Japanese garden in a shoe box. His destiny was set, and in his teens, he studied at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (nowpart of Carnegie Mellon University), drawn there by its prestigious drama department. By 19, he’d taken over set design at the acclaimed Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. The author recounts many humorous calamities during this period of developing his skills; for example, during a production of W. Somerset Maugham’s Rain, a beaded curtain made of macaroni fell gradually in pieces to the floor, leaving the actors crunching hard pasta underfoot.In 1956, Burlingame was drafted into the U.S. Army and assigned to the Signal Corps’ Army Pictorial Center in Queens, N.Y., but he received a reprieve from duty in Korea, which allowed him to begin a dazzling career on Broadway. He details his Manhattan beginnings, during which he set up a makeshift sceneshop in a Greenwich Village warehouse usingtools from the Army. Much of the book reads like a Who’s Who of 1960s and ’70s theater, with appearances by such luminaries as Italian film director Franco Zeffirelli and English theater director Peter Brook. One pull-no-punches chapter is devoted to the author’s work with the “devil of Broadway,”producer David Merrick. These accounts of grand collaborations are skillfully nuanced with moments of devotion and humility; at one point, for example, the author was forced to search the Bowery at night for plans he had lost, and when he kneeled in a snow-filled gutter, he was hit by a car. Overall, Burlingame is a skillful raconteur who transposes his experiences to the page with an understated wit, poise and grace.
A consistently intriguing backstage glimpse of Broadway’s brighter past and a must for theater buffs.
Two brothers drove BMW motorcycles on a 65-day, 18,000-km loop around China, then co-authored this brisk, optimistic memoir about the trip.
Ryan Pyle is a freelance photographer and journalist in China, and Colin Pyle was a currency trader in Toronto. In 2010, when the economic recession slowed Ryan’s assignments and Colin found himself frustrated by work, they put their jobs aside and took a self-financed road trip through China. It began in Shanghai, Ryan’s new home. They traveled clockwise, to the North Korean border, west to the Mongolian border and across the Xinjiang region, south through Tibet, then east through southern China back to Shanghai. Ryan narrates most of the story, and his writing is professional and ripe with factoids about China. Colin interjects with entertaining journallike entries that address the same narrative with a rarely redundant, saltier voice: “Can you imagine checking in toa hotel room and finding there’s shit in your toilet? And when you tell them, they say ‘Flush it’! Can you even fathom that?” The charismatic, likable brothers gleefully outrun Chinese police, careen through lesser-documented parts of China and show an affinity for non-Han ethnic minorities, especially the Uyghur people. After the clutch on Ryan’s bike malfunctions, requiring maintenance in Lhasa, Tibet, the duo backtracks 500 km to ensure that they aren’t shortchanging their route. When describing sights and events, their descriptions tend to be logistical rather than florid, and, for the most part, they eschew disparaging words about the country (except when it pertains to Chinese bureaucracy). The brothers also discuss their video footage and recording sessions at length, since they plan to release a documentary film about the trip as well.
Enthusiastic, archetypal travelers whose informative story is worth the ride.
A CEO chronicles how Saudi Arabia’s royal family carried out a hostile takeover of the private hospital he led.
Utgard, an American hospital executive with international experience, spent three years in Saudi Arabia, from 1998 to 2001, trying to turn around the struggling Al-Salama Hospital in Jeddah. Its owner, Sheik Khalid Bin Mahfouz, one of the world’s richest men—later rumored to have ties to Osama bin Laden—recruited Utgard through intermediaries. This foreshadowed a consistent pattern: Although holding the title of chief executive, Utgard never dealt directly with the so-called powers that be. In his debut, Utgard tells his story in clear prose and granular detail. From the outset, his assignment appears misbegotten. The board chairman never attends any meetings; a multimillion-dollar remodeling project lacks a written contract and stalls repeatedly over payment disputes; representatives from the royal family’s hospital in Riyadh enthusiastically propose a strategic partnership, then will not return phone calls; deadlines and commitments evaporate like mirages. Subterfuge and misdirection rule the day, symbolized by a euphemism Utgard uses to describe the acquisition: “reverse privatization.” Ample conflict drives the action, and Utgard sketches his characters convincingly, but their dialogue occasionally sounds unnatural since he forces into it explanatory information better left to narration. Meanwhile, the pace bogs down when storytelling yields to documenting the historical record, and detailed accounts of staff meetings and management strategies sometimes read like an academic textbook or legal deposition. On the other hand, the book is highly personal, with insightful observations about Saudi business practices, culture and geography. Utgard, an outdoor enthusiast, peppers the narrative with tales of family vacations, desert road trip and diving in the Red Sea; an entire chapter is a travelogue of places he visited on days off work. This amalgam may prove too personal for some business readers, while managerial minutiae may overwhelm general readers. However, it’s a valuable case study, particularly for anyone in hospital administration, and a broader cautionary tale about the risks of operating private enterprises where governments wield unchecked power.
A unique memoir that provides a rare window into the Saudi kingdom.
A heartfelt memoir of Muslim-on-Muslim discrimination and oppression.
On April 26, 1984, the government of Pakistan issued a comprehensive law rendering criminal the expression of the Ahmadi sect of Islam. Ahmadi leaders who continued to address their congregations in their official capacities were arrested; mosques were tightly policed or shut down; Ahmadi Muslims caught “acting Muslim” were subject to summary imprisonment and worse. Widespread discrimination by the nation’s Sunni majority focused not only on Ahmadi Muslims but also on Shia Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, Hindus and atheists. Rashid’s family was caught up in the violence and confusion of these so-called blasphemy laws. Yet when the members moved to the United States in 1987, they faced similar, though not as intense, discrimination and suspicion. The heartbreak of both worlds is movingly captured in Rashid’s memoir, in which he relates not only his own experiences but those of the many victims he interviewed. “I visited blood-splattered mosques, touched scars left by gunfire, grenades, and shrapnel, and prayed for the departed at their final resting places,” he says. Embarking on a “Jihad—of the pen,” Rashid effectively dramatizes some of these stories—including that of his cousin Danyal (not his real name), whose imprisonment and torture provide the book’s most memorable passages—to raise readers’ awareness of the plight of religiously persecuted minorities in Pakistan. Rashid deftly mingles personal anecdotes with polemical fire, outlining the history and nature of the Ahmadi sect, detailing the claustrophobic bigotry of Pakistan’s ruling mullahs and authorities, and convincingly broadening his scope to encompass “the millions, or rather, the billions around the world who live under the veil of oppression of conscience.” Stories of graphic violence—for instance, gunfire erupting during prayer services crowded with children—alternate with the author’s repeated calls for understanding, tolerance and free inquiry. “The antidote, therefore,” he writes, “is education and compassion. Education combats the ignorance, and compassion melts away fear.” Although his memoir offers a penetrating look at the strange specifics of a terrorist mindset, it is equally insightful on the psychology of the religiously oppressed. Along the way, the vivid narrative avoids easy answers, since there are none.
A harrowing yet hopeful story of modern-day religious persecution.
An admiring portrait of a charismatic economist and entrepreneur who found his calling as Bangladesh’s “banker to the poor.”
Bankers aren’t often thought of as heroes, but Muhammad Yunus comes across as one in this flattering biography. Esty (Workplace Diversity, 1997, etc.) traces the unlikely career of Yunus, who jointly won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize with the Grameen Bank for battling poverty in his native Bangladesh. The “Twenty-Seven Dollars” in the book’s title refers to how Yunus stumbled onto his life mission in 1976 while a young college professor. He loaned $27 to a group of 42 villagers, allowing them to break free from the bonded labor that trapped many rural Bangladeshis. Yunus went on to found the Grameen Bank, specializing in microfinance—small, uncollateralized, easy-to-repay loans to poor residents, especially women. Esty chronicles the growth of the Grameen Bank, as well as Yunus’ later focus on “social businesses,” designed to address a social problem while making a profit. Microfinance as a policy tool has its critics, but Esty makes a compelling case that Yunus and his colleagues aided countless impoverished Bangladeshis while empowering women in a Muslim nation where they traditionally enjoyed few freedoms. Inspired by the author’s own interactions with Yunus, the fast-paced book holds lessons not only for social activists, but entrepreneurs as well. Yunus has founded more than 25 companies in industries ranging from telecommunications to renewable energy. Esty isn’t a detached biographer. She admits Yunus is her “hero” and that she aims to spread his story to a wider audience. As she sees it, Yunus is an iconoclastic visionary able to spur others to action yet ambitious enough to make powerful enemies. In 2011, he was ousted from the Grameen Bank in what the author believes was a politically motivated vendetta. Esty draws on her own background as a social psychologist and consultant to extract seven “patterns of action” she says underlie Yunus’ success. The result is a powerful template for any organization seeking to make a difference.
Relentless and inspiring, the life of Muhammad Yunus shows how capitalism and conscience need not be at odds.
A breezy memoir of a publicist’s year on Hollywood movie locations.
Harris enjoyed privileged access to the insular world of Hollywood movie productions, and he puts that experience to effective use in this memoir of his work on movies such as Gladiator (2000) and The Perfect Storm (2000). He also effectively depicts the tensions—and temptations—that came with spending months at a time away from his wife and two children. “This is partly my story, partly the story of all of us—gaffers, grips and go-fers alike—who spend our lives traveling with the circus, cleaning up after the elephants, making movies,” he writes. Harris sees his job as a thankless task requiring the patience of Job as he deals with temperamental actors and scoop-hungry reporters. “[P]ublicity is the department that adds the least apparent contribution to making the movie and is therefore an annoyance to everybody,” he admits. In a breezy, engaging style, he captures both the tedium and glamor of the 1999 shoots he worked on, sharing a steady stream of tidbits about actors and others he encountered in the Moroccan desert, Malta, Toronto, Los Angeles and other locations. There’s a terrified Joaquin Phoenix saying of his role in Gladiator, “I can’t do it. I’m just a kid from Florida”; a crew member warning Harris that Russell Crowe always does “some actory thing where he behaves like [his] character”; and Mark Wahlberg’s manager telling the author to make sure that reporters on the set of The Perfect Storm don’t see the actor’s entourage. Perhaps most poignantly, actress Karen Allen confides to Harris, “I didn't really master my craft until I was nearly 40. And by then I was too old for any of the good roles.” The author is less compelling when chronicling the vicissitudes of his marriage; he admits to infidelity and then, after repeatedly affirming his love for his wife, discloses in the epilogue that they divorced in 2005. Men and women “on the bounding boat of location life...all want someone to come home to and we all secretly fear that the life we leave behind might leave us,” he laments.
A light, engaging behind-the-scenes Hollywood tale.