Tag Archives: Biography

Book Review: Rows of Memory:Journeys of a Migrant Sugar-Beet Worker

Rows of Memory by Saul Sanchez

Rows of Memory:Journeys of a Migrant Sugar-Beet Worker is the memoir of Saul Sanchez, a boy who grew up as a migrant laborer in the 1950s and 1960s. He begins with journeys from Texas and moving north with the harvests. Rows of Memorycovers the author’s life from his grandparents until his graduation from college and leaving the fields.

Rows of Memory provides a unique look into life as a migrant worker. Sanchez provides a level headed telling of his life without the bitterness I expected. He worked for good people and bad people and isn’t hesitant to tell the reader. He gives a detailed account of the work that had to be done and the tools used. The short hoe in one hand to thin and weed and the other hand to push aside the sugar beet. I was a bit surprised to learn about sugar beet production in the US. I had known that it was a European and Russian crop. What I did not realize is that more than half of the US sugar production is from sugar beets.

Sanchez does tell the highs and lows of the life. Education is particularly difficult. Every year children had to leave school before the summer break to harvest and stayed out until well into the next school year. There were problems in non-segregated schools with race and also in poor segregated schools also. One segregated school was known as “The Camp.” The fun sounding name, however, came from the schools previous use as a Japanese internment camp.

Pay evolved too for the workers and not for the better. In fact, it started to spiral downward. In his early years he remembers the new cars some workers drove and having pocket money. In his later years he tells of returning his father’s car back to the dealership because he could not afford the payments. There are political struggles and political growth among the workers as they grow and become part of society.

Sanchez’s journey is not an easy one and it is also not an easy victory. Some of it is luck, but most of it is hard work. There is little doubt that he came from a hard working family and that has a very positive effect on him. His father is another important factor, in allowing Sanchez to attend college rather than work the fields. He does get some scoffs for saving his money for college from some family members.

Rows of Memory is a very well written look back on one man’s life who rose above his station and become a university professor. It is a balanced look and seems to be a very fair assessment of his life and the world about him. It is filled with both good and bad memories and good times and struggles. For every victory there are setbacks and at times great frustration and stress. Rows of Memory provides both a history of migrant workers in the US and a biography well worth reading. Omar Valerio-Jimenez provides a lengthy and informative introduction to the memoir.

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Book Review: E. E. Cummings: A Life

I value freedom; and have never expected freedom to be anything less than indecent.
e.e. cummings

e. e. cummings by Susan Cheever

E.E. Cummings: A Life by Susan Cheever is a biography of the American poet, Cheever is a graduate of Brown University, a Guggenheim Fellow, and director of the board of the Yaddo Corporation. She currently teaches in the MFA program at Bennington College and the New School. Cheever is the author of over a dozen books, including American Bloomsbury.

The book is short for a biography of a man with a long history, but it concentrates on the high and low points and avoids the lulls that are found in longer biographies. The life story, however, seems to be complete. Cheever met Cummings when she was still in school. Cummings was performing a lecture and reading at the Masters School. Her father was friends with the poet. The young Cheever was impressed by Cummings anti- established opinions. At that time, his work was compared to Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase.” The comparison is more than subject matter, but style. Duchamp attempts to capture the entire descent down the staircase, start to finish, in a single image and Cummings attempts to capture the same effect with words. It was at Cumming’s suggestion to her father that Cheever was moved from her uptight school to a very progressive one.

Rather than summarize Cumming’s life in this review, I will look at something Cheever does in the book. Late in the book Cheever compares Cummings to Wordsworth. Wordsworth’s love for the outdoors, “Tintern Abbey” for example, and Cumming’s Joy Farm. Both men idolized youth and saw that youth had a purity that was missing later in life. I also found a few parallels myself. Both men had daughters out of wedlock and were separated from them. Both men traveled a great deal for their time and class. Also, both men had a negative view of the establishment. Wordsworth support for the Republican movement in France, but was abhorred the Reign of Terror and the subsequent crowning of an emperor. Cummings also had his problems with authority and the establishment that went much further than youthful rebellion. Much like Wordsworth, revolution excited Cummings. He wanted to see the paradise that the Soviet Union had become, but left disillusioned. Cummings became disenchanted with many things in his life he hated Jews and he hated Hitler. He hated Roosevelt and he hated Stalin. He was an equal opportunity hater.

E.E. Cummings: A Life is a well researched and well written biography of one of America most read poets. Cheevers captures the life and the mind of the poet. Like most writers of his time he lived an exciting life, filled with controversy, alcohol, and prescription drugs. His life can be compared to that of a modern rock star. The highs and lows of fame. He had the groupies and the crowds. And like very few rock stars he was able to rise above the moment of fame and produce a lasting work and a lasting name.

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Book Review: Dylanologists:Adventures in the Land of Bob

The Dylanologists by David Kinney

Dylanologists:Adventures in the Land of Bob by David Kinney is a mix of Bob Dylan biography and part overzealous fanbase. Kinney is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who has worked for The New York TimesThe Washington Post, and The Boston Globe. His previous book is The Big One: An Island, an Obsession, and the Furious Pursuit of a Great Fish — a book about Martha’s Vineyard. 

I would imagine that there are few people alive today who do not know who Bob Dylan is or who cannot name a few lines of one of his songs. As a child I remember listening to “Bob Dylan’s Dream” on 45, mainly because the opening line mentioned trains and I loved trains. I think the only other singer I remember from that very young age was David Bowie and that was because of his eerie reading of Peter and the Wolf. Bob Dylan seemed to follow me in my younger years. I remember the Saturday Night Live parody of “Blowing in the Wind” redone as “The answer, my friends, is Ronald Reagan” in a Dylan meets the Invasion of the Body Snatchers mashup. Although Bob Dylan did not fit into my friends Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, AC/DC listening preferences in high school, I did buy Slow Train Coming. I am a fan, but nothing crazy, an occasional listener. But I will admit Dylan did have an influence on me and American culture.

To say Bob Dylan has enthusiastic fans is a huge understatement.Dylanologist brings some of the biggest fans to the spotlight. Some are so avid they make the KISS Army seem tame. Dylan’s hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota is a “historic” site. The residents and the media are always alert for a Bob Dylan sighting. Zimmy’s Restaurant is a shrine to Dylan and an eatery for the fans who make the pilgrimage Hibbing. Fans seek out every Bob Dylan artifact from the house he grew up in, to bootleg tapes, and everything related or touch by the singer. 

The biography covers Dylan, from his childhood through the present, and like other biographies show the changes in the singer’s persona. It is difficult to tell what Dylan’s motivation is to constantly change his image. From folk singer, to supporting social movements, to not supporting social movements, to outspoken Christian, to talking to his rabbi, to just wanting to perform music. Dylan worked to keep his fans off balanced and not knowing what to expect next from the singer. 

Dylanologist is an interesting mix of Dylan biography and the extreme fans of Bob Dylan. The intermixing of the two subjects works well and will keep the reader interested. If you have already read Dylan biographies, there is plenty of new information concerning his fans and their reactions to the various incarnations of the singer. A great book for Dylan fans and for those wanting to know what fan obsession is all about. 

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Book Review: The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac

The Voice is All by Joyce Johnson

The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac by Joyce Johnson is a comprehensive biography of Jack Kerouac. Johnson’s articles have appeared in The New York Times MagazineNew YorkThe Washington Post, and Vanity Fair. Johnson for a time was Kerouac’s girlfriend and a member of the inner circle of the beat movement.

I like Kerouac’s work. I really do, but I didn’t always. Many years ago I found myself at Big Sur and felt compelled to run to the closest bookstore and buy a copy of Big Sur. It didn’t take long for me to put the book down. A few years ago a friend at work, knowing I read often, asked me if I read any Kerouac. I said I tried but couldn’t get into it. He said he had the same problem until he heard Kerouac read. The secret, he said, is to read it in “beat.” I gave it a try and it made a world of difference. Since then I have read all Kerouac’s major works, and he has a spot on my bookshelf. 

Once I was fully into Kerouac’s work, I dabbled into Ginsberg and Burroughs. The same friend that told me to read in beat brought me a copy of Minor Characters to read. It was also written by Johnson. When I was asked how I liked it I replied honestly. I didn’t like it it seemed too much like someone who felt cheated in history, despite her association. To be fair, I decided to give her another try with “The Voice is All.” 

To her credit, Johnson writes an extremely detailed biography. Having access to the Berg Collection in New York Public Library, Johnson had a wealth of knowledge not usually available to the public. Kerouac’s childhood is covered in great detail especially his French-Canadian background. All the major players are covered as well as their histories. Even Ginsberg setting Kerouac and Johnson up on a blind date has its part. There is a tremendous amount of information in this book and all of it very detailed. That may be part of the problem I have with the book. Kerouac reveals a great detail about his life in his books. Johnson does not contradict Kerouac, but just goes much deeper into details. There is a point where a book begins to cross the line from being informative to becoming a scholarly dissertation or thesis. Biographies generally keep the reader interested with the subjects life, adventures, or accomplishments. Scholarly work presents detailed information that generally doesn’t hold everyone’s interest, most that I have read and written would only hold the interest of a few. Generally it has a much smaller audience, but much greater detail. Johnson seems to be on this path; rich in detail, but dry to the average reader. I found her style to be informative but not compelling to read though cover to cover. 

A casual fan of Kerouac’s work may find The Voice is Allintimidating or a bit more than they expected. To the person needing or wanting to know every detail of the man’s life, this book may be for you. I will keep it as a reference. There is some really great information contained in the pages of The Voice is All, but I doubt I will read it cover to cover again. A great deal of credit is given to Johnson for compiling such a tome. What it lacks in captivating reading it makes up for in information


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Book Review: Brain on Fire

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness

Not very many books that I sit down with and read straight through that same night. Simply an amazing book. It reads like a horror story, small thing wrong like “insect bites”, numbness, progressing to seizures and madness; unfortunately it is all real and fortunately survivable. I honestly can’t remember when I was this drawn into a work of non-fiction. Amazing book.

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Book Review: Gerald Ford and the Challenges of the 1970s



American’s forgotten president.

Gerald Ford served in the House of Representatives for almost twenty-five years before being selected as Spiro Agnew’s replacement. Ford served on the Warren Commission, supported a balanced budget and was historically a fiscal conservative.  He was not Nixon’s first choice for Vice President, but he was the least offensive and known for his honesty.  

The Seventies was a time of no heroes.  Kennedy’s PT-109 Story came to light for its less than heroic actions.  Evil Kenevil’s failed Snake River Canyon jump tarnished his image forever. An unpopular war in Vietnam extended distrust of government.  Americans had few people to look up to and many people to distrust. Gerald Ford inherited a mess and was determined to fix it.

Ford pardoned Nixon to remove the former president from attention.  Inflation, unemployment, and a growing recession was where Ford believed attention should be focused and not on Nixon.  The pardon dramatically lowered Ford’s popularity overnight; but he always believed it was the right thing to do.  

Ford also made Chevy Chase famous on Saturday Night Live with his constant falls.  Ford was also portrayed as a klutz by the media.  Falls on the advance ski slopes,  cut on his head from hitting the wall while swimming, all added up to a clumsy president.  The truth is Ford was one of the most athletic presidents ever to serve and injuries were mostly results of training.  Ford once remarked after reports of a fall while skiing, is that he would like to see the reporter try the beginners slope; it’s hard to fall off a bar stool.

Ford inherited a mess politically and economically. He had no team that work with him through the primaries and elections; he had no team to start with and only a short time to form one. With little support in Congress Ford did all he could to fix the problems plaguing the country.

Ford is often dismissed as a president, but in reality he was hard working and honest and worked to build trust back in government and the presidency. He lost a close election in 1976 to Jimmy Carter and turned over a White House that was in order and a country that was recovering.

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