Sunday, July 26, 2015

Cluster Critiques

Oveta Culp Hobby - Colonel, Cabinet Member, Philanthropist by Debra L. Winegarten

With the publication of Oveta Culp Hobby - Colonel, Cabinet Member, Philanthropist, author Debra Winegarten has proven two things. First, Texas women are, and have been since they first set foot in Texas, absolute forces of nature; and Debra (pictured below, top right, with my book club) can write like nobody’s business, and has the “grit” to write best sellers.

Before reading this huge (in appeal) yet tiny (156 page) book, my only solid context for the Hobby name was a few goose bump moments when I was in former Lieutenant Governor Bill Hobby’s presence (Oveta Culp Hobby’s son). I knew his father had been governor of Texas, and I knew Bill was highly respected, but until I read Winegarten’s book, I had no idea that his mother was anything more than “just” his mother.  

Although she never completed her post-secondary education, this autodidact became the first secretary of the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare (US-DHHS), first director of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), and chair of the board of the Houston Post. In her early career, Culp Hobby became a highly respected parliamentarian of the Texas House of Representatives.  In 1931, at the age of 26, she married widowed 47-year-old former Texas Governor William P. Hobby when he was the editor of the Houston Post.  Other than an incident in which Culp Hobby, in spite of her own injuries, pulled her critically injured husband and the pilot (who subsequently died from his injuries) from their crashed airplane, what impressed me most about this extraordinary woman was her service in the establishment of WACs. Winegarten’s enthralling story of Culp Hobby told of many, many  long hours working to help fill the non-combat needs of the WWII war effort when every minute equated to lives lost. I was particularly impressed with her tenacity and forcefulness in making sure that women in the WACs, including women of color who prior to Culp Hobby’s intervention were systematically de-prioritized,  had uniforms equal in quality and warmth to military men.

Read Oveta Culp Hobby - Colonel, Cabinet Member, Philanthropist, and as important, make sure your children read it, as this is a story of a real super-hero.

Dead Wake by Erik Larson

Erik Larson has a unparalleled talent for turning academic history and exhaustive research into enthralling mystery. His books about the 1900 Galveston hurricane (Isaac’s Storm) and the 1893 World’s Fair (Devil In The White City) are two nonfiction books with the intrigue of a Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley) or  Daphne du Maurier (Rebecca), and the literary gravitas of an Ernest Hemingway (The Old Man and the Sea) or Ann Patchett (Bel Canto). Dead Wake, which is Larson’s story of the May 7, 1915, German torpedoing of the 787-foot superliner Lusitania, which was traveling from New York to Liverpool, is no exception. You may think you know all you need to know about the grim history of the sinking of the Lusitania, but I suggest you do not.  To begin with, you have the conspiracy theory that the English manipulated the sinking of the Lusitania to lure the Americans into the fight against Germany (128 American’s died as a result of the sinking). But even if that plot intrigue didn’t exist, you would enjoy this book because Larson doesn’t just tell the story, he puts you into the story. You feel the rhythmic rocking of the boat and the sun-kissed ocean breeze. You see blonde curls suspended in white ribbon as the children play games on the ship deck. You sense the ever so slight hesitation as the German U-boat captain considers his actions before ordering the launch of the torpedo. You watch in horror as reality slowly blooms on the faces of families who will never again see each other. Larson helps us look beyond the surface of tragedy to see the people, and that is always the heart of a well-told story. If you have the patience to let drama unfold in the context of beautiful writing, in spite of knowing the oncoming outcome, you will enjoy Dead Wake.

The Midnight Plan of the Repo Man by W. Bruce Cameron

This was a surprisingly fun little book that allows you to not take it too seriously. Bruce Cameron is a playful writer, who imbues his characters with quirkiness and unexpected mannerisms. Like what you ask? Like, none of the characters are handsome or beautiful or rich or adventuresome or even particularly scary or interesting. Well, except the dead guy who lives in the main character Ruddy McCann’s head.  So, the story is about a murder in a small town, but honestly it really doesn’t even matter what the story is about because Bruce Cameron and his main characters are all laugh-out-loud, go nowhere, fun characters. Oh, and I loved the taxidermied bear in the bar. 

Gods and Kings: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano by Dana Thomas

Alexander McQueen and John Galliano’s brilliant fashion sensibilities advanced them to the top of the design world at Dior and Givenchy. But the same creative intensity that made them “Gods and Kings” of the unprecedented growth in the fashion industry they caused, also eventually rendered them incapable of living normal lives.

Alexander McQueen, trained as a tailor, was the master of fabric and construction, designing clothes that every woman wanted to wear. Galliano’s designs based in unique romanticism brought the design world to their knees. They both turned the clothing industry into theater, changing forever the way seasonal designs are presented to the world. The stories of their insanely elaborate fashion shows are legendary. Imagine vats of blood and techno-lighting, hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on flowers, and hours-long late starts and you have some sense of the bizarre world in which they functioned. Sadly, McQueen’s life ended with suicide, and Galliano’s career careened out of control due to substance abuse. Whether you care anything about fashion or designers, this is a well-written and interesting story about two fascinating and creative, yet tragic characters, and it is an inside look at an industry that is like none other. I enjoyed this book and believe you will too. 

Head Case: My Brain and Other Wonders by Cole Cohen

When you have a hole in your brain the size of a large lemon, life is not going to be easy. In this pretty fascinating book, Cole Cohen tells the relatively unemotional story of how, for the first twenty-six years of her life, she was diagnosed with one learning disorder after another and put on medication after medication by physicians who really didn’t have a clue what was wrong with her.  As long as she was a child and living with her parents, it was mostly just difficult and made life for her and her parents a series of unanswered questions and concerns. But when she became an adult and expected to live life independently, it became a huge issue. The primary disability that impacted every aspect of her life was related to time and space. She couldn’t drive, she couldn’t make change, she couldn’t remember where anything was, she couldn’t navigate a grocery store or much less a city - all of which made it impossible for her to keep a job. She just migrated from therapist to therapist, trying to reconcile her inexplicable, undiagnosed problem.

Then, although it sort of defies logic that it would take 26 years to find a huge hole in someone’s brain, Cole is finally scheduled for an MRI, and bingo! There it is – a very big hole in her brain. The doctor freaks because he can’t understand why she is still alive. But Cole and her parents are just relieved to have an explanation. The story doesn’t really go anywhere, and reading this book felt like I was “rubbernecking,” but Cohen’s story is mesmerizing and well-written considering her young age and, well, considering the brain hole.

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