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Monday, March 13, 2006

After Long Silence

After Long Silence
Helen Fremont
Publisher: Delta (January 11, 2000)
ISBN: 0385333706

Imagine being raised as Mid-western, pseudo-religious Catholic, only to learn that your parents are in fact, Polish Jews, and survivors of the Holocaust to boot. Imagine that, and you'll have some idea of what Helen Fremont went through.

After Long Silence is a memoir in several parts, jumping between Fremont's childhood, where she wondered about her father's experiences in a gulag that left him with a permanently damaged arm, and learned to say "Hail Mary" in six different languages from her mother as a "a means of survival : proof of my Catholicism to anyone in a dozen countries.", to her experiences as an adult, slowly discovering the truth about her family and her heritage, and even back in time, chronicling the major events of her parents lives as they struggled to stay alive, and ultimate come back together after the devastation of the Second World War.

It's a very powerful, very interesting book, and Fremont tells her story well. She weaves together different time periods and events in a fairly seamless way, and her depictions of her parent's lives in Poland during the war all ring very true. And her own confusion and soul searching at discovering that her parents were not who she thought they were manages to be poignant, without being overbearing.

I wish I had more to say about this book, honestly. Maybe I will after class tonight, or after I've had more sleep. For now, I'll just say that I really enjoyed it, and would recommend it to anyone interested in memoir, the Holocaust, or just a very interesting familial mystery.

The Gift of Fear

The Gift of Fear
Gavin De Becker
Publisher: Dell; Reprint edition (May 1998)

This book was recommended to me years ago by Tony Blauer and Van Canna Sensei, a very high ranking (and very skilled) Uechi-Ryu instructor. I've read it several times since then, and recently re-read it as prep for a project for my book publicity class. It's a great book, so I thought I'd throw a review of it up here.

The Gift of Fear is a book about violence. Specifically, it's about predicting violence, and how most modern people ignore the signals that their intuition and their body give them about violent, or potentially violent situations. De Becker takes the conceit that violence is random, unpredictable, and unavoidable, and thoroughly debunks it through a combination of research, psychology, and a lot of illustrative stories.

The book begins with a general overview of some of De Becker's main ideas, describes his work in some detail (he runs an agency that provides protective services to a wide variety of clients), and a few stories to help get those ideas across. Later chapters move into more specific types of threats, including stalkers, domestic violence, workplace violence, and eventually culminating with an interesting discussion of assassins. In each chapter, De Becker gives examples of common predictors of certain types of violence, and breaks down a few myths about how to deal with potentially violent predators.

I should be clear—this book is focused almost entirely on verbal and psychological strategies. You won't find diagrams of how to elbow someone in the head or kick someone in the groin here. but the information presented here can help you predict and avoid the situations where you might need to elbow and kick someone, which, to my mind, is the best form of self-defense you can practice.

There's a great deal of really valuable information presented here, and it's presented very well. You don't need to be a practicing martial artist to get a tremendous amount out of this—if you have ever worried about being the victim of violence, read this book. It's worth it.

Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Half The House: A Memoir

Half The House: A Memoir
Richard Hoffman
Publisher: Harvest Books
ISBN: 0156004674

I read this book somewhat randomly.

Richard Hoffman, among his many hats, is a professor at the school where I’m doing my MA. In point of fact, I’m in one of his memoir writing workshops right now. A friend and fellow classmate lent me this book a few weeks ago, which lead me into the odd position of reading the memoir of a guy who’s teaching me how to write memoir. Very odd. Especially since the memoir came out a long time ago (close to 10 years ago), which means I’m getting two entirely different perspectives of the same man at the same time. It’s sort of like the first time I met Tony Blauer (, after watching him on tape for close to a year.
Like I said, very odd.

On with the show.

Half the House
covers many of the topics that have come to be stereotypically associated with memoirs; Hoffman’s relationship with his father, who terrorizes young Hoffman in ways he doesn’t even realize; the death of two of Hoffman’s younger brothers to muscular dystrophy; the sexual abuse Hoffman experienced at the hands of his little league baseball coach; Hoffman’s battle with alcoholism (this last one gets mentioned only obliquely. Details are scarce, but we know it happens). If I was going to make a list of stereotypical features of a memoir, Hoffman would have hit just about every button.

Which is not, I should be clear, to say that this is a bad thing, or a bad book. It’s a great book, though it’s quite far from being cheerful, uplifting, or any of the other Oprah-riffic words that get appended to memoir (it’s also true, which also apparently distinguishes it from certain Oprah-riffic memoirs). Hoffman strikes a nice balance between placing the reader in the moments of his childhood self, and also being able to reflect back on the events as an adult. This is something I’ve been struggling with like crazy in my own attempts at memoir, and it’s nice to see it done well here.

Hoffman’s prose is very nice. It’s got a quiet, sort of reflective quality; I felt like it carried his voice well, but I’ve also heard him speak, so it was easy for me to impose his speaking onto the words. I’m not sure how it would affect a reader who hasn’t met him, but I imagine it would still carry the quality of his voice well.

Half the House
covers a lot of unpleasant material, and it hits hard, but it’s also not excessive. Hoffman doesn’t flinch from telling about what happened, but he doesn’t beat the reader with excessive details either. Perhaps the only exception to this is his struggles with alcohol, which are mentioned only somewhat tangentially, and given very little detail. That said, those struggles aren’t really the point of the book; it’s much more about Hoffman dealing with the abuses of his childhood, and coming to terms with them.

Overall, good book. Not the most uplifting, but not a total downer either. As I said, the writing is wonderful…it’s worth reading just of the quality of the prose alone.