Carolyn’s CBR4 Review#16: Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War

In 2011 Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee — along with her country’s president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Yemeni activist Tawakul Karman — was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. At age 18, Gbowee’s comfortable life was smashed with the beginning of the First Liberian War. She was separated from her family, lived in a refugee camp for a time and had children with a physically and emotionally abusive man.

By 1999, the Second Liberian War had broken out. More than 100,000 people had died, many of them children, and countless women had been raped. As many as a third of Liberians had been displaced. Much of the country’s infrastructure — its sewage and electrical system, roads, hospitals and schools- lay in ruins. Thousands of boys had been pressed into fighting for one side or another, fed liquor and drugs and turned into killers. By then Gbowee was a struggling single mother of four and a newly graduated social worker. One night she had a dream where a voice told her to “gather the women and pray for peace.”

In 2003, Gbowee began organizing women into peace demonstrations. Thousands of women dressed in white gathered in a field along the capital of Monrovia’s central road and refused to leave. Christians and Muslims, young and old, educated and illiterate, all sat together to voice a single demand: “The women of Liberia want peace.” The women picketed in downtown Monrovia, they held events and news conferences, but mostly they sat, day after day, month after month, in searing heat and pouring rain, demanding that attention be paid. With outreach, the protests soon spread across Liberia. Some women even participated in a sex strike, saying they would not have sex with their husbands or boyfriends until there was peace, prompting the men to demand peace as well. Partly due to these women’s actions, Charles Taylor left Liberia and Ellen Sirleaf Johnson was elected as Africa’s first modern female head of state.

The book is an amazing read. Women are so often undervalued and they suffer the most during war time. They are the ones who have to bury their husbands and sons, walk miles in search of food, see themselves and their daughters raped and mutilated and then must somehow find the strength to carry on. She addresses an issue that I have often thought of when I read about people such as Billy Graham or Dr. King – how much are you willing to sacrifice your family to create a better world? She barely saw her children but was spurred on in her desire to leave a better world for them. Her nonviolent protests changed her country.

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Carolyn’s CBR Review #15: Those Guys Have All the Fun

“Those Guys Have All the Fun” is an oral history of ESPN, from its inception to its current status as a television empire. ESPN began as an outrageous gamble with a lineup that included Australian Rules Football, rodeo, and a rinky-dinky clip show called Sports Center. Today the empire stretches far beyond television into radio, magazines, mobile phones, the internet, video games and more, while ESPN’s personalities have become global superstars to rival the sports icons they cover. Their MO is to talk to pretty much everybody who’s ever been anywhere near the network and then weave the quotes into a single (sort of) narrative, presented verbatim with little commentary, focusing on key transitions and deals and famous and infamous moments Apparently most people at ESPN headquarters were wasted a lot. Sexual harassment was rampant. People were having sex in the stairwells. The company kept an apartment in Manhattan, and at one point it came out that some of the secretaries were turning tricks there, pimped by a guy in the mail room.

The main problem of this book is a lack of editing. It is 745 pages long and probably could have been sliced down to about four or five hundred pages. We didn’t need to read ten different people calling Keith Olberman a dick; we got it after the first two. Do I really need to read everybody’s perspective on every event in the history of ESPN? The other big problem with the (supposedly “unauthorized”) book is that it interviews people who still work for ESPN, still make their money by staying on ESPN’s good side. How much can they really say?

If I were a person who was looking to learn how to start a company, negotiate partnerships with the major sports leagues in the world, or learn how to start off as a nobody and end up with the highest title in the company–only to use that to leverage a new position elsewhere–then this book would be perfect for me. From a business standpoint, this would be a great learning tool. But it is not a book for sports fans and the interesting anecdotes sprinkled throughout the book are not worth reading 745 pages.

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Carolyn’s CBR4 Review #14: Swamplandia!

I’ll be honest: I picked up this book because of its name and the picture of the alligator on the cover. Who doesn’t love gators? So I had no idea about the plot or even if anyone thought it was any good.

The Bigtree alligator-wrestling dynasty is in decline. Swamplandia!, their island home and gator-wrestling theme park is losing business to a fearsome and sophisticated competitor called the World of Darkness. Mom Hilola Bigtree, the “swamp centaur,” was the star performer and core of the family business, adept at the arcane art of alligator wrestling. After Hilola’s death from ovarian cancer at only 36 years old, the park begins its slow decline. 13 year old Ava Bigtree steps in as the chief gator-wrangler but tourists are just no longer interested. Ava’s father, the Chief, heads to the mainland to attend “investment meetings” her sister Ossie communes with the dead and has ghost boyfriends and her brother Kiwi (real name) leaves his family a “Valedictory Note” expressing his “insuperable horror at the mismanagement of Swamplandia! and the poverty of our island education” and takes a minimum wage job at the World of Darkness to bail his family out of poverty. After the Chief leaves, Ossie runs away to marry her spectral boyfriend Louis Thanksgiving and Ava enlists the help of the omninous Bird Man to save her sister before she reaches the Underworld.

It’s a bit much. The book scores major points for originality but its originality is compromised by the uneven character and pace of the novel. But generally the big picture wasn’t the issue. It was the myriad little things that got me more. Like Ava and Ossie sitting in the kitchen with bare cupboards, complaining about how hungry they are, and then a few pages later they pack for a trip, stuffing backpacks full of the suddenly plentiful food in the house. Or like an emphatically described cloudless sky, which two paragraphs later begins to rain. Or conversations that have huge gaps, or other ones where a character thinks something but then the other character responds as if the thought had been spoken. Important or even trivial plot points revealed in the wrong order, or tossed haphazardly in the middle of the next scene. Banging us over the head with overly obvious truths, rather than letting us infer them. Terrible character inconsistencies. Lazy, lazy lazy. The worst part of the story is a big reveal towards the end of the book, so I won’t spoil it. Suffice it to say that something very awful and very unexpected happens about 260 pages into a 300-page book. Now first of all, that is way too late, especially in such a slow-moving and long book. Secondly, it is a pretty horrifying thing, which is dealt with barely at all, and mostly in even more horrifying thoughts and ways. Thirdly, I guess it signals the beginning of the end of the book, and the author frantically tries to resolve all of the dangling plots in a matter of pages resulting in a lot of dropped threads, unanswered questions and an utterly unfulfilling closing scene.

Also, Russell is often guilty of one of my biggest writing pet peeves: using words that don’t make logical sense because they sound pretty. “The moon continued to whir,” or “Their wings panted towards us.” This kind of writing sounds good and poetic or whatever, but the more I think about what it’s supposed to mean, the more frustrated I get. And it slows the book down even more. (HOW CAN THE MOON POSSIBLY WHIR? SPACE IS SILENT.)

Long story short, I’d give this book a pass if I were you.

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Carolyn’s CBR4 Review#13: The Emperor of All Maladies

“In 2010, about six hundred thousand Americans, and more than 7 million humans around the world, will die of cancer.” With this sobering statistic, physician and researcher Siddhartha Mukherjee begins his comprehensive and eloquent “biography” of one of the most virulent diseases of our time. He frames it as, “an attempt to enter the mind of this immortal illness, to understand its personality, to demystify its behavior.” It is an epic story that he seems compelled to tell; the way a passionate priest might attempt a biography of Satan.

The oldest surviving description of cancer is written on a papyrus from about 1600 B.C. The hieroglyphics record a probable case of breast cancer: “a bulging tumor . . . like touching a ball of wrappings.” Under “treatment,” the scribe concludes: “none.” From the Persian Queen Atossa, whose Greek slave cut off her malignant breast, to the nineteenth-century recipients of primitive radiation and chemotherapy to Mukherjee’s own leukemia patient Carla, the book is about those who struggled fiercely to survive and the doctors who attempted to understand the disease. It is also a story of human ingenuity, resilience, perseverance, hubris, paternalism, and misperception. Mukherjee recounts centuries of discoveries, setbacks, victories, and deaths, told through the eyes of his predecessors and peers.

He talks about the horrors of the radical mastectomy, which got more and more radical, until it arrived at “an extraordinarily morbid, disfiguring procedure in which surgeons removed the breast, the pectoral muscles, the axillary nodes, the chest wall and occasionally the ribs, parts of the sternum, the clavicle and the lymph nodes inside the chest.” Cancer surgeons thought, mistakenly, that each radicalization of the procedure was progress. He talks about the struggle to link smoking and lung cancer. By the early 1940s, as one epidemiologist wrote, “asking about a connection between tobacco and cancer was like asking about an association between sitting and cancer.” In the decade and a half after Nixon declared his war on cancer, lung cancer deaths among older women increased by 400 percent.

It is amazing to sit and think about just how much work went into this book. Even organizing the book into chapters would be an impossible feat for me. Mukherjee weaves together all the various facets of this iconic disease throughout history, from describing cancer from the patient’s perspective, to viewing the never ending battles of physicians and medical researchers with cancer over the centuries, to examining the mysteries of the cellular nature of cancer itself. The book’s 600 pages fly by and even those without a scientific background should be able to follow along. The book is the perfect marriage between science and poetry and rekindled my dream of becoming a doctor. It is just that good.

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Carolyn’s CBR Review #11: Little Girls in Pretty Boxes

Some of the most loved Olympic events are the gymnastic and figure skating competitions. We sit on our couches, probably shoveling popcorn into our mouth watching these girls perform amazing, borderline supernatural feats. We rarely wonder about what goes into making an Olympic gymnast. Nor do we wonder why all of the girls are so young. But the female gymnast’s career is a race against time and nature. Gymnasts and skaters primed for the Olympics, ostensibly paragons of health, suffer such pressure to maintain their thin, boyish frames, sans breasts or hips that they resort to measures like chugging Ex-Lax by the bottle before weigh-ins or refusing to eat altogether.

Joan Ryan’s “Little Girls in Pretty Boxes” is a chilling, sobering look at the world of women’s gymnastics, where the coaches yell and taunt at young gymnasts while their parents overlook – or exaggerate – the abuse, creating a culture of destroyed confidence. It’s an unflattering portrait. Unlike most sports, young girls are chosen to be gymnasts at a young age based mostly on body type. Ryan tells of the sad fates of several promising girls who were sucked into this world by their talent, chewed up and used by ego-driven coaches and, once they proved too weak or useless for coaches, discarded like scraps, often the worse for wear.

Ryan’s material was largely derived from personal interviews with nearly 100 former gymnasts and figure skaters as well as trainers, sports psychologists, physiologists and other experts, focusing on the physical and emotional hardships young women endured for the sake of Olympic glory. She argues that the image of these athletes’ beauty, glamour, class and sophistication conceals a troubled reality, with physical problems of eating disorders, weakened bones, stunted growth, debilitating and fatal injuries, psychological issues such as depression, low self-esteem, and self-mutilation and the life sacrifices of dropping out of school, losing the chance to “be a child”, and becoming isolated from their peers and families. Sexual abuse was not uncommon.

She contends that the coaches have created and fostered an environment that’s extraordinarily detrimental to these young athletes. Ryan saves the worst for coaches like Bela Karolyi or Rick Newman who have pushed cruel, Eastern Bloc-influenced coaching methods to the forefront to create winners. Their gyms often feature long, harsh training sessions and verbal abuse from coaches push these young athletes past their mental and physical limits – insults about the weight of these girls is not uncommon. Ryan writes of many cases of girls breaking down, both mentally and physically – stress fractures and broken wrists seem almost scarily common in these gyms.

This isn’t to place the blame squarely on coaches, however. Ryan also writes of parents blinded by the dream of an Olympian daughter who look past whatever problems their kids have and often convince their children to keep competing. They refinance their houses; they take second jobs and move across the country to go to these gyms where maybe a coach will mold their daughter into a winner. One father allowed his daughter to be legally adopted by her coach. Ryan summarizes their ambition by asking what do their parents value more: their daughter being healthy or winning?

It’s names like Julissa Gomez and Christy Henrich who resonate throughout the book, gymnast prodigies who were brought down by the harsh environment. Gomez broke her neck in a risky routine at 16 and remained in a semi-vegetative state until her death at age 19. Henrich developed an eating disorder likely brought on by over-zealous coaches and slowly starved herself to death.

Although Ryan’s book is supposed to be about gymnasts and figure skaters, the latter don’t get nearly as much attention, perhaps because they don’t suffer as severe injuries as gymnasts and generally are older when they compete at the Olympics. But her argument that age works against these girls does point up the case of Michelle Kwan, who was a 13 year old sensation at the world championships and stayed at the top of her sport until she was nineteen, when she was upstaged by a 15 year old challenger named Tara Lipinski. Ryan has researched her book carefully and perhaps it has had a beneficial effect; the minimum age for Olympic gymnastics competition has been raised to sixteen, and at the 2000 Olympic Games, the girls looked much better fed than they did in 1996. The one caveat I have about this book is that Ryan seems not to have spoken to any competitors who enjoyed their sport, who persevered because they enjoyed it and not because they were pushed or bullied into it. Including some of these athletes would have made for a more balanced and ultimately a better book.

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Carolyn’s CBR4 Review #10: In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin

It has often been said that for evil to win all that needs happen is for good men to do nothing. That was what the United States government did, at least officially, for much of the lead-up to World War II. Too often chances to speak out and try to stop the madness that was engulfing Germany were ignored. Too frequently the atrocities were overlooked. There were some exceptions, some people who tried desperately to alert the United States to the horror that was building across the Atlantic. George Messersmith, who worked at the Berlin embassy, was one of those who tried, often in vain, to bring about some change in the US policies, though he was often ignored as having too vivid of an imagination. So, too, were various Jewish groups in the USA, though they were often ignored for being Jewish. And, eventually, so did William Dodd, the United States ambassador to Germany, though he was ignored because, frankly, too many people didn’t want to believe any of what was happening in Berlin.

One of the malicious nicknames given to William E. Dodd by his fellow American diplomats in the 1930s was “Telephone Book Dodd.” The joke was that Franklin D. Roosevelt, who appointed Dodd ambassador to Germany in 1933, had supposedly meant to offer the post to a Yale law professor named Walter F. Dodd but made a mistake in looking up the name. Dodd was by no means the first pick for the job, but other candidates had already shown their reluctance to do time in what, even before Adolf Hitler assumed absolute power, was an increasingly menacing Germany. Dodd was unusual partly due to his modest ambitions. He accepted the position, thinking it would give him more free time to complete his book, a study of the antebellum American South. Dodd, an unassuming and scholarly man, was an odd fit among the extravagance of the Nazi elite. His frugality annoyed his fellow Americans in the State Department and Dodd’s growing misgivings about Hitler’s ambitions fall on deaf ears among his peers, who were content to “give Hitler everything he wants.”

Dodd’s daughter was Martha Dodd Stern an indiscriminate flirt who was working her way out of her first marriage and aspired to be a writer. Immediately upon arrival overseas, however, she revealed her true talents as the town bicycle. Out every night, she has one affair after another, including with the surprisingly honorable first chief of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels and Ernst “Putzi” Hanf­staengl, who at one stage tried to persuade her to become Hitler’s mistress. Though she would become a popular author, live a long, complicated life and eventually be accused of spying for the Soviet Union, the young Martha favored breathless, thick-headed comments that no nonfiction chronicler of the Dodd’s’ misadventure would have dared to make up. “I was slightly anti-Semitic in this sense: I accepted the attitude that Jews were not as physically attractive as gentiles and were less socially desirable.”

At first, the Dodds — like many in Germany — tried to give the new regime the benefit of the doubt. The attitude most adopted was along the lines of, “Once the dust settles, they surely can’t be all that bad.” The city was beautiful and charming and so were some of the Nazis. The U.S. State Department was more concerned about the debt than politics. People spoke excitedly about this “New Germany.” And yet the new government kept passing laws restricting the freedoms of Jews. Americans and other foreigners were frequently beaten on the streets, usually because they failed to offer the Seig Heil salute when brown shirts marched by. Hitler’s ultimate aims were arguably plain to see when he repudiated the Treaty of Versailles and began rebuilding the army. Concentration camps, like the one at Dachau, were becoming operational, even if their eventual purpose was still clouded.

Dodd eventually became critical of Hitler’s regime, although his objections were based more on history than morality. He never became a great statesman, but he was one of the few who refused to bow to German pressure. The Dodd’s story is fascinating, tinged with rising peril and pityingly persuasive about the futility of Dodd’s mission. “In the Garden of Beasts” is a vivid portrait of Berlin during the first years of Hitler’s reign and the rise of the Nazi Party told from the perspective of those previously relegated to the shadows.

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Carolyn’s CBR Review #9: The Long Walk

In 1956, a Polish man living in the English midlands published an extraordinary book that became one of the classic tales of escape and endurance. In April 1941, young Polish cavalry officer Slavomir Rawicz escaped from camp 303, located south of Yakutsk, in a blizzard together with six other prisoners. He had been sentenced to twenty five years of hard labor after being convicted ostensibly for espionage as were thousands of others.

Rawicz tells his story in a detached, calm manner. He spends less than a chapter detailing his torture at the hands of the NKVD “specialists” in Kharkov prison, almost passively detailing his weeks-long confinement in a upright-coffin-sized kishka cell standing in his own bodily wastes, his racking and the burning of his hands with hot tar, the systematic beatings and subtler tortures. Rawicz can even praise the kishka of Lublyanka prison where he is incarcerated during his show trial, because “…this kishka was clean, and the periods I was forced to spend in it were much shorter.” On the march to the Siberian labor camp from Moscow, he approximates that 10 to 15% of the prisoners died during the March.

At Camp 303, Rawicz decides to escape, aided by the sympathetic wife of the Soviet commandant, who asks only that he wait until her husband is so he will not face any blame. Rawicz chooses six other prisoners—one of whom is an American mining engineer who was arrested after a year’s work on the Moscow subway tunnels. “Mr. Smith” is strangely fluent in Russian, and may in fact be a spy, but the other five men are Polish, Latvian and Lithuanian prisoners. They collect supplies of dried bread, steal deer, sable and rabbit skins from the guards, and manage to create warmer clothing, shoes and other tools for survival before leaving the camp in mid-April, 1941.

The seven men, and an escaped Polish teen, Krystyna, whom they meet on the east side of the half-frozen Lena River, had before them a daunting journey. They would need to walk more than 3000 miles south through Siberia’s spring blizzards and icy rivers, Mongolia’s Gobi Desert and the Tibetan Himalayas, in order to “surrender” to a British lieutenant in southern Nepal. It was a grueling nine months of travel, including almost 60 days in the Gobi Desert. Five made it to India. Almost as impressive as their drive to survive was their determination to retain their humanity. They never murdered and only occasionally stole food to survive. Part of what kept them human was Krystyna whom they adored and protected. Slavomir’s ordeal overshadows every other survival tale I’ve ever read, including Admiral Scott’s Polar expedition and Krakauer’s Everest disaster. This is up there with the Donner Expedition in terms of grim conditions and the indomitable human spirit.

It is difficult to completely believe in Rawicz’s story. How could they have reached their exact destination after wandering a year through 4,000 miles of wilderness without maps or supplies? How could they survive 12 days in the Gobi Desert without water or food? Or cross the Himalayas, summiting mountain after mountain, wearing only worn moccasins and a few ragged articles of clothing? Rawicz seems to be unable to provide the most basic details about his ordeal including one of his companions (the American, “Mr. Smith”), where he was finally picked up by the British Army, or the name of the hospital where he recovered from the ordeal. Also, the groups encounter of the elusive Yetti in the Himalayas and taunting it like the guys in the beef jerky commercials stretches credibility.

It’s up to the reader to determine whether or not Rawicz’s story is real. I wish this story about the capacity of what the human spirit and mind can endure to survive in a trek to freedom were nonfiction. But regardless, it is still a good read.

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