American Heiress

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American Heiress is an interesting read about a turbulent time in history and the place of Patricia Hearst’s kidnapping case within that time. Jeffrey Toobin’s book will leave you questioning whether Patricia is guilty or innocent in the crimes she committed after being taken.

American Heiress by Jeffrey Toobin
American Heiress by Jeffrey Toobin

Patricia Hearst was kidnapped in 1974 by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), a small group of radicals in the San Francisco area. She soon found herself involved in bank robberies and other crimes with the SLA. After most of the members died in a shootout with police, Patricia and the remaining two members remained in hiding for over a year before being arrested.

Upon her arrest, Patricia appeared to have been radicalized. Several people who witnessed her life on the run testified to her zeal for the SLA’s cause. However, after her father provided her with a lawyer, she completely changed. She cut ties with SLA members and became a model inmate. When at trial, she received an “average” sentence for her role in one bank robbery in exchange for testifying against the remaining SLA members about the bank robbery that resulted in the death of a woman. Her sentence was commuted by President Jimmy Carter, and later pardoned by President Bill Clinton. Patricia never committed another crime.

Patricia Hearst: Guilty or Not?

For about three quarters of the book, Patricia appears to be guilty of the crimes she committed alongside the SLA. Her apparent radical behavior in front of strangers and her defiance to the police upon her arrest point to someone who has been truly changed by those who kidnapped her. Further, she kept a monkey necklace that was given to her by Willie Wolfe, one of the SLA members. During her trial she would claim that their relationship was non-consensual, but her keeping of the necklace raised doubts in the minds of many. Many of her actions, though done in captivity, make her look guilty.

And yet she was kidnapped. Although the SLA did little physical harm to her, these were radicals who were interested in and willing to harm other people. There is little doubt that they could have harmed her. Furthermore, her complete turnaround so shortly after capture points to her possibly being coerced by her captors. Despite the fact there are inconsistencies in her story, the fact she has never committed any further crimes speaks volumes.

So do I think Patricia Hearst is guilty? After finishing this biography I spent hours thinking about it. Although it seems like an easy answer, I believe that the only person who knows the extent of her guilt is Patricia Hearst herself.

Quick Review

This book was well-written in a journalistic style. While I prefer the personal style of memoirs over biographies, I found this biography enjoyable. Unfortunately it had a slow start as it tried to introduce all of the characters and their histories, along with the political atmosphere of the time. However, once I was into the book I found it hard to put down. The doubt surrounding Patricia’s guilt or innocence is extraordinarily intriguing. I cannot help but continue to think about whether or not she willingly committed her crimes, even after I’ve finished the book.

Her Again

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Her Again is the charming and emotional biography that details Meryl Streep’s early life and rise to fame. Michael Schulman artfully weaves together her story in a way that will enchant readers.

Her Again by Michael Schulman
Her Again by Michael Schulman

Meryl Streep grew up in Bernadsville, New Jersey. In high school she developed her talent and passion for acting. She left high school and entered an all girls college, where she flourished without the distraction of boys. However, in her junior year the school started allowing boys to enroll, causing tension among students. Meryl continued to act, and enrolled in acting school at Yale. Her fellow students looked up to her talent and versatility in the roles she played. This versatility would follow her throughout her career, as she slipped easily in and out of roles.

After college, she began to act in more plays. She took many Shakespearean roles, and in one of those roles she met John Cazale. They fell deeply in love, and continued to act together. When John fell ill with lung cancer, Meryl stood by his side until the end. In the aftermath of his death, her career as a movie actress began to take off. Only six months after his death, she married Don Gummer. Although the wounds of losing John had not healed, she found something enduring in Don that she knew was right. She and Don have four children and remain married to this day.

Schulman painted a bright picture of a brilliant woman.

Schulman’s excellent writing made it easy to be impressed by Meryl Streep’s talent. He wrote about her acting skills and their development in a way that made them come to life, even without a screen. Most interestingly, he wrote about Meryl’s shunning of method acting. Instead of conjuring up her own pain to get to a certain place while acting, Meryl preferred to act as a reflection of life as she saw it.

Schulman also gave the reader a glimpse at Meryl’s fire. Meryl was influenced heavily by second-wave feminism, and has always been vocal in those beliefs. She believes that both men and women should be able to step out of the roles society puts them into. Meryl has also been an advocate for herself and her acting. On one film she was offered, some scenes called for her nudity. Instead of merely turning it down, she asked if the male lead would also be showing the same amount of nudity. The part was offered to someone else.

Schulman captured her fun personality along with her strength.

Meryl has a lot of quirks, and Schulman captured them beautifully within the pages of the book. He wrote about her vocal desire for personal space and privacy, especially after having her first child. She loves pearls and a jacket she’s had since college. If she could do anything, she would act in plays instead of movies. And despite her fame, she still has some insecurities about her appearance.

Most interesting to me, though, was her marriage to Don Gummer. She had met and married him in a six month period. Although her friends and family wondered if she had lost her mind, she had fully thought through the marriage and it has become one of the most enduring marriages in Hollywood. Because I also had a hasty marriage, I am always fascinated by what goes into those decisions. Ultimately, I believe that when you know you’ve met the person you’re meant to be with, you know it’s them and you know when the timing is right. That timing might be mere months (to the dismay of family and friends) or that timing might be years. I do know that it didn’t feel fast to Grant and me, and I doubt it felt fast to Meryl Streep and Don Gummer.

Quick Review:

Her Again was a great read with great writing. Michael Schulman brings to life the story of Meryl Streep’s rise to fame in a very lively and linear way. My only complaint is that it did not cover more of Meryl Streep’s life, although it is a very good “rise to fame” tale. Although I have seen Meryl Streep in a few movies and enjoyed her performances, I would not call myself a “fan,” although this book certainly did a good job convincing me that I should be. For those who love her, this is a must read.

I Am Malala

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In her powerful memoir, Malala Yousafzai writes about childhood in Pakistan and the events that led up to her being shot by the Taliban. Her advocacy for education of children, especially young girls, has made her the youngest ever Nobel Peace Prize laureate. This memoir gives the reader a unique glimpse into her story from her perspective.

I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai
I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai

Malala was a fairly ordinary girl living in the Swat valley in Pakistan. She went to a school where her father was the principal. Eventually, though, the Taliban who began to infiltrate the area said that young girls were not allowed to go to school. Malala refused to accept this, and with her parents’ support and blessing, she continued to not only go to school but to speak out on behalf of the education of all girls.

“When the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful.”

Malala Yousafzai

Her father was a strong advocate of education, and the two of them traveled and shared the difficulties that the area they lived in faced under the Taliban. When a journalist began to publish anonymous letters about life in Pakistan that were written by Malala, they were read by those around the world. Eventually, though, her anonymous cover was blown (accidentally by her own father) and the Taliban set in motion a plan to kill her. One day, they got on the bus she was on and shot. The damage was extensive, and Malala woke up in a hospital in England where she was able to receive better care. Her family was relocated to England where they would be safe to continue to advocate for education away from the grasp of the Taliban.

Malala is an ordinary human doing extraordinary things.

Malala writes about ordinary things like arguing with her brothers and having problems with her best friend. Although she insists that her brothers start all of the fights, she admits that those fights exist and are a part of her life. Her arguments with her best friend are not glossed over, nor are her temporary lapses in judgement during some of these fights. Malala does not paint herself as a girl who was born a saint, but rather an ordinary girl who was given an amazing opportunity to speak up for what she believes in.

“I don’t want to be thought of as the ‘girl who was shot by the Taliban’ but the ‘girl who fought for education.’ This is the cause to which I want to devote my life.”

Malala Yousafzai

It is easy to look at people like Malala who have done great things and think, “I could never do that.” Malala won a Nobel Peace Prize at an age when my greatest accomplishment was getting my driver’s license. While we may not all receive a Nobel Peace Prize for the peace that we bring to the world around us, we can all work together as ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Sometimes in a world filled with so much darkness, a small act of kindness can begin to make change in the world around us.

Quick Review:

For a book written by a young adult, I Am Malala is very well-written. I have heard about Malala for years without knowing enough about what happened to her, and hearing her story in her own words was a rewarding experience. It was a great story, and my only real complaint was short areas of repetitiveness.

The Woman Who Would be King

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Female leadership, especially in ancient times, is a strange thing to some people. I discovered this book when I saw a former professor of mine post about it on her Facebook page. When I read what it was about, I immediately wanted to read it. As a female undergoing the requirements to become a pastor and chaplain (often thought to be a man’s role), stories of women who have successfully led despite gender bias are of particular interest to me.

The Woman Who Would be King by Kara Cooney
The Woman Who Would be King by Kara Cooney

When you hear the name “Hatshepsut,” it does not conjure up any images. Her name is not a household name (for good or for bad) like the few other women who led in ancient times. If I were to say “Jezebel,” you may not be able to tell me exactly what her story was, but you would know at least that she was a woman with power who did not use it in a positive way. Hatshepsut had more power than any woman of her time could dream of having, but is easily forgotten because her life did not end in scandal. While she shrewdly positioned herself to gain her power, she did not kill her relatives or use her sexuality to gain it.

“Hatshepsut has the misfortune to be antiquity’s female leader who did everything right, a woman who could match her wit and energy to a task so seamlessly that she made no waves of discontent that have been recorded.”

Kara Cooney

Hatshepsut was the daughter of the king, Thutmose I. She married her half-brother, Thutmose II, who ruled only a short time. Unable to produce a male heir to the throne, it would have to go to the child of a “lesser wife,” a son by the name of Thutmose III (really, I’m not making this up). While this boy who was still a baby grew, Hatshepsut took the place of queen-regent, a role usually reserved for the mother of the king. In the seventh year of this role, she had the people crown her king. Thus, she and the young Thutmose III both ruled as co-kings, something that had happened in Egypt in cases where an older king wanted to teach a younger king how to rule before he passed on. Though theirs was an unconventional rule, Hatshepsut cleverly used the conventions of Egypt to provide herself with as much power as possible.

Hatshepsut sacrificed her femininity in order to rule well.

Throughout the pages of this book, it was painfully clear that Hatshepsut changed who she was to please the people she ruled so that she could keep the power she held. While she acquired her power by emphasizing her ties to her father and her divine role in the Egyptian temples, there is evidence she may have struggled to keep her power as the young king grew older.

The earliest statues she had made of herself show her in a woman’s dress with the king’s clothing over it. She is smiling slightly, and her figure is feminine. Over time, though, the statues that she has created portray her as more and more masculine, until her statues are identical to those of her co-king Thutmose III.

“She may have been king, the most powerful person in the ancient world, but beliefs and expectations greater than she was forced her to perform unending ideological gymnastics to satisfy the sacred role. In the end, Hatshepsut had no choice but to change her outward appearance.”

Kara Cooney

For me, this was the most heartbreaking part about reading this book. While she may have suffered a lot of other things that may fall to speculation, it is abundantly clear that she changed her portrayals of herself. She may have even changed the way she actually dressed to please the people that she was leading. While I am not entirely advocating dressing however you want whenever you want, I find it hard to swallow that often the way women find they can fit into leadership roles is by making themselves appear more like men. There have been times that women I care for have been asked to wear subdued colors only when serving in leadership roles in ministry. While I am fortunate that in my context I have not faced any criticism for how I dress (bright yellow and all), I know that my situation may not always be that way.

“Hatshepsut’s story can help us appreciate why authoritative women are still often considered to be dangerous beings who need to be controlled, monitored, contained, and watched.”

Kara Cooney

I am not the type of person who writes about how unequal or unfair things are for women very often. Things have improved for women a lot in the last fifty years, and in the United States women enjoy a lot of freedoms that we wouldn’t be able to enjoy in other countries. However, it is foolish to deny that we do not view women in power differently than we do men in power. Women using a strong tone of voice while speaking are viewed as hysterical or unhinged while men may just be viewed as passionate. Women posing the same questions or making the same comments in a meeting may be seen as being nags, while men are being diligent. Women sometimes face more scrutiny for their mistakes and may be criticized for not balancing their home and work lives better. These things may not always be the case in all places, but some women face even worse than these bad perceptions. Despite this, women like Hatshepsut still lead. Women will continue to seek leadership positions at all levels and in all fields. My hope is that we will be able to lead in a way that is authentic to who we really are in a world who will accept us for what we have to contribute.

The Age of Daredevils

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This is the most exciting book that has ever put me to sleep. At first glance, that might seem like an attention-grabbing comment meant to lure you into reading more of this blog post. My own feelings toward the book The Age of Daredevils are more complicated, though.

The Age of Daredevils by Michael Clarkson
The Age of Daredevils by Michael Clarkson

Clarkson’s book details the stories of the daredevils who took trips over Niagara Falls or in the rapids below. He primarily focuses in on the Hill family, who lived on the Canada side of the falls and were present at and participating in many of these stunts. He carefully describes the tension felt at each of these events, including the emotions of the daredevil and the crowd.

“Could his life be better? Sure, and it will be, but he has to remind himself he has already lived other people’s dreams, and today they have turned out in the tens of thousands just to watch him live them out, and others have come to visit the dark part of their soul that wants to see a man snap his spine.”

Michael Clarkson

I was often inspired by the heroics and the humanity of Red Hill Sr., a so-called “river man” who fished bodies from suicides and accidents out of the river below Niagara Falls. He worked hard, though sometimes doing illegal things, to provide for his large family. However, the falls and the stunts of daredevils on them always called him (much to his wife’s dismay). After his passing, several of his sons would go on to try stunts on the falls and the rapids below. His son, Red Hill Jr., would die in an accident on the falls, crushing the family and encouraging police to enforce daredevil laws more closely.

My Favorite Daredevil Story

I loved reading about Annie Taylor and her adventure going over Niagara Falls. She was not only the first person to go over the Falls and survive, but she was a women who did so in a time when women we not even allowed to vote. Before her stunt, the news openly mocked her for her foolishness. However, afterwards she was celebrated. Although her life ended many years later in poverty, this stunt brought her some amount of fortune and notoriety.

Why This Book Made Me Sleep

I have had a very difficult time pinpointing exactly why I had a difficult time reading this book. The stories were enjoyable. Clarkson’s writing style was sharp and easy-to-read. When I think about the book, I even think of it fondly and would recommend it to other people.

However, I fell asleep while reading it. It wasn’t a book that made me want to fight sleep and stay up all night reading. In fact, I fell asleep while reading this book several times, even when I wasn’t especially tired. While I am not especially sure what the reason is that I struggled with this book, I think the fact that it was so detailed about such a large period of time with so many different people has something to do with it. When there are that many details, it is harder to keep up with and makes my mind tired.

While I know it’s a strange personal preference, I also like shorter chapters because they make me want to read the next chapter (since it’s such a manageable size). This book did not deliver that for me with its long chapters that covered long chunks of history that included lots of names, dates, and places.

A Good History Text

Despite these feelings, though, I believe that if I were in school and had to read this as a history text on some of the culture surrounding Niagara Falls, I would be thrilled. It is an interesting history text. However, as a book to read for pleasure, it was harder to read because of the amount of concentration it required.

Quick Review

The Age of Daredevils was a very well-written book. Michael Clarkson did an excellent job giving the reader a feel for the overall history of the daredevils who went over Niagara Falls. However, my preference for more narrowly-focused histories (biographies and memoirs) kept me from enjoying it to the fullest. Although necessary to tell the story, having such a large number of names, dates, and places made it harder for me to keep my mind engaged. Despite this personal bias (I admit it!), I do wholeheartedly recommend this interesting book.