Review: Uncle Tungsten

Uncle Tungsten, Oliver Sacks. New York: Vintage Books, 2001

Summary: A memoir of Sacks boyhood and his explorations of chemistry encouraged by an uncle who used tungsten to manufacture incandescent bulbs.

I’ve enjoyed several of Oliver Sacks books recounting various neurological conditions and the workings of the human brain. I had not been aware of this book until receiving it as a gift. Sacks employs his gifts in telling the story of his childhood, and particularly his fascination with chemistry. In some ways, it came with the territory. His parents were both doctors, who saw patients at their home or permitted Oliver to come on house calls his father would make.

From childhood, Sacks was fascinated with metals and other substances, their color, their weight, how they responded to heating, to being combined with other chemicals. This fascination was fed by by his “Uncle Tungsten” a.k.a Uncle Dave. He was called Uncle Tungsten not only because he made incandescent lamps using tungsten wire, but because he was truly enamored of tungsten, thinking it quite a wonderful metal. He shared this wonder with young Oliver, as well as showing him other metals including aluminum and what happened when you applied mercury to its surface.

Eventually Uncle Tungsten showed him how to set up his own lab bench with the apparatus he needed and how to use it safely. Inevitably there were “stinks and bangs” including an episode with a cuttlefish that made a dwelling uninhabitable for a time. The story is one of curious, self-directed learning that studied spectra, chemical reactions, and families of elements. His discovery of the periodic table, Mendeleev’s Garden, helped make sense of why certain elements were similar in character to others, and even helped predict the character of elements yet to be discovered.

Perhaps the most fascinating chapters were those on “cold” light–fluorescent and phosphorescent elements–and that on X-rays and how they were produced. Here it was Uncle Abe who exposed him to things like radium, at a time when people were only beginning to understand the detrimental effects of radiation on the human body. He speaks of viewing a grain of radium through a spinthariscope and the “shooting stars” he saw through the eyepiece. One wonders if there was any connection between these youthful explorations and the ocular melanoma that resulted in Sacks death.

Sacks did not take up a career in chemistry, obviously. But in this memoir we see the curiosity that fueled his neurological research, his quest to understand how things worked. What a wonderful thing that there were adults in his life who nurtured that curiosity while allowing him the space to pursue self-directed learning. He was a “researcher” long before he became a researcher. And this led to the wonder beyond laws and equations and tables to memorize, the wonder of color, of order, of chemical reactions, and so much more. For Sacks, science became a matter of wonder and wondering.

In our own era of mistrust of science, one wonders if we’ve missed something in science education. What if, instead of mistrust of “authorities” we worked to foster curiosity and wonder? What if, instead of making pronouncements, we worked to foster curiosity? What if instead of endless encouragements of vaccines and masks, we invited curiosity about how COVID is so cussedly good at infecting its human hosts and what happens in the body when it does?

I don’t know if that would change any of our discussions, but I do wonder if a healthy dose of curiosity and wonder, like that which characterized Oliver Sacks “chemical boyhood,” might do us all a bit of good.

Review: Travels with Charley in Search of America

Travels with Charley: In Search of America, John Steinbeck. New York: Penguin Classics, 2012 (originally published in 1962).

Summary: John Steinbeck’s memoir of his 1960 roadtrip in his truck/camper Rocinante with his French poodle Charley.

It was 1960. Richard Nixon and John Kennedy were in a race for president. Highways from town to town were being replaced by high speed Interstate highways. The South was in deep conflict over desegregation. Mass media was expanding its impact on the culture. And John Steinbeck was aging. His son, Thom, said Steinbeck knew he had the heart condition from which he would die in 1968. And he wanted to see the America that had been the backdrop of his stories one more time,

So he bought a 3/4 ton truck on which a custom camper top was installed with bed, stove, lights, and facilities and dubbed his vehicle “Rocinante,” after Don Quixote’s mount. One wonders if he thought this journey quixotic in nature. He sets out from New York City north to Maine, across New England and New York, along the south of the Great Lakes through the Midwest, across the northern states all the way to Washington, down to California including revisiting his old stomping ground, trekking across the Southwest, through Texas, stopping in New Orleans during a desegregation crisis which he witnesses, across the South, up through Virginia, and New Jersey and back home.

Accompanying him is his faithful old companion, his ten year old French poodle, Charley, who would go “Ffft” when Steinbeck was too slow to take him out. One of the most endearing parts of this work was the bond between them, often evoking some of the strongest emotions Steinbeck has throughout–contempt for the government bureaucracy that wouldn’t allow them to cut through Canada without Charley’s inoculation papers, surprise at Charley’s fierceness when they spot grizzlies, anger at a veterinarian whose indifference to Charley’s bladder problems, frustration at Charley’s lack of interest in the greatest of the redwoods, and warm affection for another vet who cared for his old dog. As the title suggests, Charley is perhaps the main character in this memoir besides Steinbeck himself.

Steinbeck remarks the changes that have occurred throughout the country. He speaks of the massive growth of the cities, which he tries generally to avoid (one exception is Minneapolis, and the nuclear evacuation route he followed, reflecting on the traffic jams that would have made this route worthless). He describes listening to jukeboxes, where the same songs were #1 wherever you went, a harbinger of the growth of mass culture. He remarks on the odd phenomenon of the reticence of people to talk about the presidential election.

Christian Smith has described American religion as “moral therapeutic deism.” Steinbeck noted this even in the 1960’s as he traveled across the country, contrasting what he found in one Vermont church with what he found elsewhere:

“For some years now God has been a pal to us, practicing togetherness, and that causes the same emptiness a father does playing softball with his son. But this Vermont God cared enough about me to go to a lot of trouble kicking the hell out of me. He put my sins in a new perspective…I wasn’t a a naughty child but a first rate sinner, and I was going to catch it” (p. 61).

Steinbeck said he felt so revived he put $5 in the offering plate and commented of the pastor: “He forged a religion designed to last, not predigested obsolescence.”

These larger observations of society alternate with personal encounters, many at breakfast counters across the country, taciturn in New England and more voluble as he entered the Midwest. Then there is the very human encounter with a property manager who informed Steinbeck that he was trespassing, and as they talk and share some coffee with something added, the manager shows him a place to park and takes him fishing. Like so many, they saw Steinbeck’s camper, and wanted to be him.

In the end, Steinbeck wanted to get home. Something seemed to change once he reached California. Spotting coyotes he could have easily taken down and done others a favor, he cannot. He witnesses the viciousness of white women (the cheerladies) when a little black girl tries to integrate a school in Louisiana. Encounters with two hitchhikers, one white, one black underscore the deep racial divide of the time. Strikingly, the black man fears him, and gets out before reaching his destination, preferring walking to fear.

Getting lost, being misdirected and directed runs through the narrative. Even back in New York City, he requires directions from a policeman to make it home. One senses that it is a lost man who is in search of America with his dog. And what did he find? In his own words, “I do know this–the big and mysterious America is bigger than I thought. And more mysterious.”

I have to admit, the older I get, the more I find myself in agreement with Steinbeck. All the things I thought I knew about the country, I know no longer. What I thought I knew has become mysterious. And I find myself longing more and more for people like that Vermont preacher. Someone needs to kick the hell out of us.

Review: Bird By Bird

Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott. New York: Anchor Books, 1994.

Summary: Anne Lamott’s advice to her writing students, basically, “almost every single thing I know about writing.”

Anne Lamott grew up around a father who wrote. She learned, along with prisoners he taught, to put a little down on a piece of paper every day, and to read lots of great books and plays and that we all have a lot in us to share. She started doing this as a schoolgirl and never stopped. Her second grade teacher read a poem she wrote about John Glenn and she won an award. She’d sit with her dad and write poems. Eventually she learned that she was good at stories and funny. She wrote sophomoric material as a sophomore but she heeded her dad’s counsel: “Do it every day for a while. Do it as you would do scales on a piano. Do it by prearrangement with yourself. Do it as a debt of honor. And make a commitment to finishing things.” It might be that this is some of the best writing advice in a book chock full of Lamott’s earthy, practical, and funny advice.

Basically, according to Lamott, if you want to be a writer, you need to write. In the first part, she talks about basic steps to getting started. If nothing else, write about your childhood–everything you can remember and sit down and do it at the same time every day–struggling with the voices that say you can’t do this. One of her exercises is to write about school lunches–we’ve all got those memories. It’s not time yet to think about agents and publishing. It’s time to work on writing. She advises starting with short assignments, what you can see through a “one inch picture frame.” This is where “bird by bird” comes from. When her brother was stymied by a report on birds, her father told him, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” She also advises writing without reining yourself in, which means “shitty first drafts” (a phrase that recurs more than a few times–Lamott’s way of keeping it real). Perfectionism is the enemy, like a muscle cramp that keeps us from moving freely.

For writing fiction, she advises getting to know your characters and the plot will emerge. Avoid plot devices and shortcuts that lose your reader’s trust. Write dialogue by which your characters are recognizable and realize that writing dialect is hard writing and hard on readers. She describes the moment she broke down when her editor told her her book didn’t work, and the meeting the next day where she made the case for her book, told him all the stuff she’d forgotten to put down, the thoughts she had about how she could solve the problems in the plot. He said “thank you” and asked her to write that book, beginning with a chapter by chapter plot treatment of what she had just told him. It became her greatest novel. And she talks about knowing when you are done.

She talks about the writing frame of mind–attentiveness, understanding the moral point of view of a piece, learning to rely on intuition, and learning to breathe and align ourselves with the work rather than listening to the station in our heads–KFKD. She offers tips of things along the way, from carrying index cards to scribble down things we may need in a story–a line of dialogue, a memory recalled, a simple occurrence in the grocery story–calling around to find someone who knows what the wire thing on top of a champaign bottle is called, finding writing groups and those who read your drafts. For writing block, she suggests just trying to write one page of anything–even those childhood memories–and wait. She wraps up the book talking about publication, and what she calls “her last class” which not only has some funny advice about avoiding libel but a wonderful description of the pleasures of the writing life.

Lamott, as in all her books can be funny, profane, transcendent, and serious, sometimes within the space of a few sentences. Some of the most moving passages are those where she talks about her friend Pam, who died of cancer, and what Pam taught her about life and writing. She gives us a sense of that mysterious drive to write, because we can’t not write, the hard work and the great joys of writing. One also has the sense as you read Lamott, that writing opens one up to something bigger, the grandeur and tragedy, the serious and silly things, the morality and meaning of a life well-lived, and how we all fall short of it. And it all starts with short assignments, shitty first drafts, and bird by bird.

Review: With or Without Me

With or Without Me, Esther Marie Magnis (Translated by Alta L. Price). Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2022.

Summary: A memoir of losing a father to cancer and the loss of faith that came when earnest, believing prayers went unanswered, and the slow journey back.

Esther’s father announced the news as Christmas approached. He had cancer and the doctors said it was too advanced for them to do anything. He had weeks to a few months to live. Esther had grown up in a church-going family in Germany. Her first prayer was, “I want to keep dad.” She, her brother, and sister joined in attic prayer meetings. Her father fought back and for a short while, the cancer relented and it seemed their prayers were being answered. And then it came roaring back. And for a time, she prayed even more, believing they would travel to Spain as a family. But dad died. And God died to Esther.

The middle part of this book is hard reading, as Esther retells the rawness of her grief, her anger at the God who did not act, who was silent. She skips school, drinks, and embraces all the skepticism of those around her about God and truth. This section is full of expletives, many directed toward God. She engages in internal debates with “the clown” and “the snitch” representing skepticism about God and truth and even one’s own existence. Finally she hits rock bottom during a forest party a year after her father died on Easter weekend and declares, “I don’t care.”

Silence. God is silent, and yet present. She realizes that “God subverts silence. There must be a power there we do not understand.” Singing a lullaby to her grandmother who suffers from dementia, she sings the words “He has not forgotten thee” and remembers how she heard it as a child–“Godandthee.’ She questions the certitude of those who confidently assert “there is no truth.” How can they be so confident, then of the truth of this statement? Slowly she gropes her way back to faith, just in time for her brother, who will face his own existential crisis.

This is a powerful memoir. No easy answers. Hard painful realities of life. Unvarnished and raw at times. Believing can be challenging. But for the author, not believing is even harder. In the end, she faced the reality that despite all the hard stuff, at the bottom of reality, “God is.”


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer Program.

Review: A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition

A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition, Ernest Hemingway. New York: Scribner, 2010 (Original edition published in 1964).

Summary: Based on the manuscript submitted by Hemingway for publication rather than the posthumously edited version originally published, a memoir of his time in the 1920’s in Paris, his beginnings as a writer, his first marriage, and the circle of writers he worked among, including the previously unpublished “Paris Sketches.

A Moveable Feast was the last work to come from Ernest Hemingway. He began working on it after recovering two trunks of effects in 1956 that had been stored at the Ritz in Paris in 1928. He wrote his publisher weeks before he took his life (in June 1961) of the difficulties in writing the beginning and ending. The manuscript published posthumously contained edits made after his death that he may not have approved. In 1979, Hemingway’s personal papers were released. In 2009, Hemingway’s grandson Sean Hemingway edited the manuscript as it came from Hemingway, restoring the text as it stood before Hemingway died and also including ten “Paris Sketches” not previously published. His son Patrick also contributed the Foreword.

A Moveable Feast, the title of which is explained in Sean’s “Introduction,” is a memoir of Hemingway’s Paris years. We read of the honeymoon years of his first marriage to Hadley, how joyously and inexpensively they lived, especially after Hemingway gave up journalist writing, and then betting on the horses, both of which took him away from the work of writing. In the Paris Sketches there is a wonderful little sketch of how his son accompanied him to the cafe’s as he wrote, and tried to shame Fitzgerald out of drinking. In another Paris Sketch, “The Pilot Fish and the Rich,” Hemingway chronicles the end of his marriage, his inability to love two women, and the remorse he lived in, without recriminations toward Hadley, who eventually, in his words, “married a much finer man.”

He recounts his beginnings as a writer, trying to get his short stories published, and the support of Sylvia Beach, of the original Shakespeare and Company, the venerable Paris bookstore, that served as a gathering place for the ex-pat writers of this period–Joyce, Hemingway, Stein, Fitzgerald, Eliot, Pound. He recounts the advice of Stein and his falling out with her, the influence of Joyce, and his relationships with a number of others, not always flattering. Hemingway describes Fitzgerald’s problems with drunkenness and Zelda’s jealousy of his writing as she sinks into her own insanity. Ford Madox Ford is portrayed in one of the Sketches as a liar, and Hemingway describes the disagreeable, acrid odor that emanated from him when he lied. On the other hand “Ezra Pound was always a good friend and he was always doing things for people” and was a great encouragement to the young Hemingway.

In contrast to some of the others, notably Fitzgerald, we see a writer increasingly disciplined, who did not treat those who interrupted his work kindly, often getting up early to his writing. Not only did a number of short stories come out of this time, many lost in a stolen suitcase, but also The Sun Also Rises, his first full-length novel. Sadly, he finished the last revisions in December of 1925 during their ski holiday in Schruns, their last together before they separated and divorced.

There is a bittersweetness about this work, it seems to me. One senses a generation trying to escape into the gaiety of Paris after the spectre of war and the wounds, physical and mental it left on so many. We meet the great talents, often thwarted by their own demons as much as anything. We delight in the decision of Ernest and Hadley to both grow their hair to the same length, which will save them the time-consuming social life with disapproving friends. And we wish it could have lasted. Sadly, Hadley would not share him with Pauline and the honeymoon in Paris ended.

One wonders what Hemingway thought as an older man, struggling with this memoir, in his fourth marriage and suffering from depression. One senses both glimpses of the wonder of the memory of these times, and a sadness, that despite the successes that flowed from this time, that he’d not found what he was looking for, that may have seemed so near in those Parisian years. Perhaps that is why he could write neither beginning nor end. Perhaps this was a time that could not be anchored in time–a moveable feast indeed.

Review: Land of Women

Land of Women, Maria Sánchez (Translated by Curtis Bauer). San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 2022.

Summary: A rural field veterinarian in Spain gives voice to the lives of rural women and the places they inhabit.

Maria Sánchez is a field veterinarian who works in rural areas of Spain. Her father and grandfather were both veterinarians. She is the first women to be a veterinarian in her family. She recognizes the ways she has broken out of the patriarchal pattern, one followed by her mother and grandmother. One that has silenced the voices and muted the contributions of many women. This memoir seeks to give voice to their stories and their contributions, their hard work, the injustices done them, and their resilience.

The memoir begins with Maria going through the pictures of three grandparents that died, particularly her grandmother Theresa, once a sassy young woman. She realizes the women existed as ghosts, fulfilling the duties of sisters, wives, and mothers, often working hard around home and garden, the keepers of remedies whose stories are untold. Even in her own professions, all the pictures are of men with animals. Where are the women? They are under-represented in the statistics of agriculturalists. They are unheard, unseen. Only with the rise of feminism are they beginning to be celebrated.

Equally unknown is the rural environment where many of them have labored. The towns have been devalued by the greater cities, their stories untold. They become places to flee, even as the life of the land depends upon them. The stories of women and the rural towns are intertwined. For women, it is vital that it be understood that they are not “the daughter of, the sister of, the wife of” who “help.” They are persons with their own work. They help preserve a rural culture in danger of being lost.

Sánchez pays attention to words, collecting them like seeds. The names of the different trees, the plants gathered and stepped upon, the names of the animals, the birds. She believes we cannot love, and will not seek to preserve, what we do not know. To learn the stories, the words is to hear a people saying:

“We are alive and we are here.”

The second part of this work returns to three women in her genealogy, her great grandmother likened to the cork oak, her grandmother Carmen, likened to the garden, and her mother, the olive tree. She gives voice to their stories, the connections between them, connections that began before birth.

This is a beautiful book, weaving the stories of the women, rural lands, and the web of life they all inhabit. Sánchez remarks of how during her veterinary studies she would often be surrounded with works of literature while others would insist they were just into the science. This memoir reminds us that science just helps us understand and care well for what we love, for what has captured our imagination.

While she tells the story of rural women in Spain, one has the sense that this is a story that is transcultural. In so many of these countries, the stories have remained untold, the voices silenced, captured in the image of a woman who left a box of notebooks, all blank. In the mass migration to cities around the world, we are in danger of losing the stories of rural ways, the names of things. Maria Sánchez helps us hear them saying “we are alive and we are here.”


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Unforgettable

Unforgettable, Gregory Floyd. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2022.

Summary: Through remembering his life of faith, the author remembers the working of God in all of life’s seasons, giving hope for the future.

This book surprised me in its capacity to evoke memories of my own life. Perhaps it is because the author and I are the same age, lived through the same times, although with different experiences, but on the same journey of faith.

The book began in the author’s experience of caring for his mother during her decline with Alzheimer’s disease and the question of “who are we without our memories?” He started recording his own memories, not ones he searched for but those who came to him. This book is the product of that remembering time.

Perhaps the most defining came in his eighteenth year:

“…in my senior year of high school, I heard his voice. Not audibly, but an impression on my heart, a word pressed into it: Jump. I woke in the middle of the night to a voice that said: ‘Jump, and trust that I will catch you.’ Somehow, I knew this was God speaking, and I decided to jump. If I was correct, I would find myself in the arms of God”

Gregory Floyd, p. 30.

And this is where he found himself. Floyd describes the experience of brokenness and forgiveness, the beauty that finds its focus in Christ. He describes the beginnings of his marriage and the decisions to put God first, even above their love, realizing this is what would bind them most deeply together, as they received God’s gift. He describes creating a family–a large one of nine children, one who died.

One of the quite wonderful passages is the one on the Word, and how scripture speaks to him of the abiding love of God and how one might live in that. He opens his own life of prayer, learning to pray as he can and not as he can’t, taught by the Spirit and shaped by the prayers of scripture. He remembers both the prayers and the silences. He vulnerably shares his journey of wrestling with the loss of a son in an auto accident in front of their home–a parent’s worst nightmare. He is honest about the grief, even after 25 years, as well as the hope of seeing him again and sharing a ‘10,000 year glance.”

His memories move from his own life to the wonders of God in salvation and the splendor of His glory, of which he writes as clearly and reverently as anyone I’ve encountered. He concludes with his growing hope as he grows older and the showing of Julian of Norwich that “all shall be well.” What Floyd discovers in this reflection upon memories is that “God inhabits our memories,” sustaining us with his mercy and grace and taking our past experiences to foster hope for the future.

Why did this book speak so powerfully to me? I found myself walking through the different seasons of life with the author, and remembering the goodness of God, the riches of the scriptures, of prayer, of family, of Christian community down the years. As I approach the end of my seventh decade with the author, I do wonder what lies ahead. One thing is certain. We will die. While we never know when this is, the deaths of classmates, of those five, ten, fifteen or twenty years older reminds me that this is inevitably more imminent than I once thought it was. And what of those intervening years? The reminders of my own memories of the presence of God into whose arms I’ve jumped gives me hope that he will carry my wife and me safe through. The saints who influenced my life who I believe are cheering me on in glory are closer than ever. And every beauty, every gift of each day reminds me of what shall be, the emerald greens of this spring, the pleasures of weeding and planting, of savoring a good book, a symphony, a sunset. Floyd’s book reminds me of the God of grace and providence who has inhabited all my memories, all my days, and promises that “all shall be well.”


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Nothing Is Impossible

Nothing is Impossible: America’s Reconciliation with Vietnam, Ted Osius, Foreword John Kerry. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2021.

Summary: A memoir by former U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam, Ted Osius, describing how a former enemy became one of America’s strongest international partners, and the important role diplomacy played to bring that about.

The story begins with a conversation between two Vietnam veterans on a flight to Kuwait. John McCain, a prisoner of war in Vietnam for six years was sitting with John Kerry, a swift boat captain, highly decorated for his actions in an ambush and later reviled for his testimony questioning America’s war aims. Senators from two different parties began talking about getting accounting of POW/MIA servicemen and the restoration of relations with Vietnam that would facilitate that accounting. Their collaboration led to the passage of a measure re-establishing formal relations during the Clinton administration.

That was just the beginning of rebuilding the trust between these two countries shattered by war. This memoir by former U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam, Ted Osius, gives an account of the diplomatic work that has led to Vietnam now being a strong international partner of the United States, resulting in the recovery of remains of many of those missing in action, cleanup of dioxin sites, honoring of the dead who fought with the U.S. as well as establishing vital trade, defense, and environmental collaboration..

Ted Osius was working in the State Department when the mission was established in Vietnam that preceded full diplomatic relations, working with charge’ d’affaires Desaix Anderson as a junior political officer. His work involved establishing everything from military exchanges to assisting Americans in Vietnam when they needed help. He learned the language of Vietnam, and as a cycling enthusiast, toured the country on bicycle, a practice he continued as ambassador, for the access it gave him to ordinary people. His friendship with John Kerry began when they toured part of the country on bikes. When Pete Peterson, a former POW, became ambassador, he told the team: “You’ll get it right 98 percent of the time. As for the other 2 percent, I’ll eat it!” He urged them to take risks and build a new relationship with Vietnam.

A big part of his work, and a theme running through his efforts, was working with the Vietnamese to establish U.S. and global trade relationships. This involved delicate and ongoing negotiations about labor conditions (a major breakthrough came with reforms at a Nike factory) and human rights. They also began the effort to addressing POW/MIA accounting, and for the Vietnamese, the cleanup of dioxin sites, dioxin a chemical used to clear brush that caused numerous birth defects and other health problems. Another theme was developing a collaboration to counter China’s growing regional influence.

Later, in the Bush administration, he served as a science officer, helping with environmental issues on the Mekong River, with disease prevention (including SARS, which led to Vietnam’s strong public health response to COVID-19). His return to the U.S. brought him in contact with other U.S diplomats who were gay including his husband Clayton Bond. When the ambassador role to Vietnam came open in 2012, around the time of the Obama administration’s shift on marriage equality, it became a serious option to pursue the appointment to Vietnam, the country he had come to love. It took until 2014 but he was appointed.

The latter part of the book describes his bicycle diplomacy and the trust that was built through respecting Vietnamese cultural traditions including releasing carp on the Day of the Kitchen Gods. He worked with the country and U.S. experts in clearing unexploded ordinance from the war and on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. One of the major efforts was to negotiate with Vietnam’s leadership for TPP membership, which would open up the country to global trade. He helped arrange a visit of the party secretary to Washington, and an eventual visit of President Obama to Vietnam, as well as a visit of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. He participated in the establishment of a Fulbright University in Vietnam. And he was able to find a way to renovate the Bien Hoa Cemetery, where many South Vietnamese soldiers were bury in a neglected burial ground, an important desire of Vietnamese-American ex-pats, but politically sensitive.

He stayed into the early Trump administration, when his advice differed from administration priorities, resulting in a sudden replacement. Shortly afterwards, Osius retired from the State Department.

The memoir is an education in the work of an effective ambassador, both representing American policy with due diligence, supporting American business interests and caring for American citizens in country while building respect and trust in the host country. Osius’s willingness to learn the language, cycle the country, honor cultural practices and places, and listen carefully to high officials led to working on military, economic, environmental, and human rights issues. Vietnam became an important partner as both the U.S. and Vietnam faced a growing Chinese presence in the South China Sea. Osius learned and respected the David and Goliath history of Vietnam, that included its defeat of the U.S. in conflict. He learned that we get farther honoring David than reprising Goliath.

Vietnam still honors human rights in the breach but Osius could point to progress. The government is Communist, a single party dominating the government. But during the twenty-year period the book covers, one sees how two former adversaries could develop amicable relations while remaining different. They could work on common interests and try to persuade the other where they differ, while benefiting the people of both countries. That is diplomatic work at its best. Would that it were so everywhere!


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book via Edelweiss from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Education of an Idealist

The Education of an Idealist, Samantha Power. New York: Dey Street Books, 2021.

Summary: A memoir on immigrant-American, war correspondent, human rights activist, and diplomat Samantha Power.

Samantha Power has led an interesting life, by any measure. Born in Ireland, she emigrated with her mother Vera to the United States as a young girl, leaving an alcoholic father who eventually drank himself to death at a young age. She and her mother became naturalized citizens and Vera married Eddie, who provided not only the love but the stability she needed. She played basketball and ran cross country in high school and is an avid baseball fan. After graduating from Yale, she ended up as a freelance war correspondent in the former Yugoslavia, where she encountered the genocidal efforts against Bosnian Muslims, culminating in Srebenica. Returning to the U.S. she plunged into law school while doing the research on her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Problem From Hell, (review), a history of genocide in the 20th century.

She returned to Harvard, teaching at the Kennedy School for Government and serving as Executive Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. She left Harvard in 2005 for a one-year fellowship with then-Senator Barack Obama, helping shape his efforts to press for American intervention in Darfur. She campaigned for Obama, resigning at one point, when what she thought was an off-the-record conversation about Senator Clinton was published. She later joined his administrator on the National Security Council, where she served as a Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights. In 2013, she was appointed the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, where she served until January 2017.

Leaving public office in 2017 afforded more time with her husband, legal scholar at Harvard, Cass Sunstein, and their two children, Declan and Rian as well as resuming teaching duties at Harvard Law School and the Kennedy. She returned to government in 2021 as the Administrator for the United States Agency for International Development.

The Education of an Idealist covers everything except for that last sentence. Fitting for an interesting life, Power tells an interesting story, an un-put-downable story at least for me. Beyond the curriculum vitae outlined above, we come to understand the shaping of a woman passionate in the pursuit of human rights and how she persisted when her passion ran up against political realities and limits. This is a woman who first of all knew both love and loss, and understood both the pain of feeling she’d abandoned a father, and the flourishing she experienced with her mother and step-father who were for her every step of the way. I was fascinated to learn that until about mid-way through her time at Yale, she was more interested in sports than international affairs. A European trip awakened her to genocide, oppression, and the fissures that would eventually erupt in Yugoslavia. An internship with Mort Abramowitz where she researched the Bosnian conflict led her to the adventure of trying to see that war up close as a war correspondent–setting the precedent for her commitment to get “on the ground” whenever she could to understand a crisis–whether the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, the Ebola crisis, or even the missions of other U.N. ambassadors, who she visited rather than making them call on her.

The narrative is a story of a passion to save human lives, and to stand up for human flourishing, where ideals often ran up against reality. She learned how hard it is to do better. One senses her frustration when she thought she had a commitment from the President for U.S. intervention in Syria after Assad’s nerve gas attacks, only for him to backpedal and fail to secure Senate support. She learned to do what could be done, negotiating protocols with Russia to remove Assad’s chemical weapons. We see her frustration when political realities with Turkey prevent Obama from naming atrocities against the Armenians a century ago genocide. And we see how hurtful accusations against her could be when she had fought for the very things she was accused of not doing.

Part of the narrative is how she found strength in fostering community with other women both in her own government, and with women ambassadors at the UN. One of her last acts was to call attention to twenty women being held as political prisoners. Her efforts, and the political pressure applied, resulted in the release of 14 before she left office. They also, along with her live-in nanny, Maria, help her wrestle with the tension of high-level government service and parenting, and the unavoidable tradeoffs this involves.

Perhaps in light of the present situation with Russia and Ukraine, Power devoted her last speech at the UN to warning the world of the efforts of Russia to sow havoc, whether supporting Assad’s genocidal efforts to eliminate his opposition, the ruthless annexation of Crimea from Ukraine (bite by bite?), and the interference in American elections. I admire the fire with which she spoke:

“Are you truly incapable of shame? Is there literally nothing that can shame you? Is there no act of barbarism against civilians, no execution of a child that gets under your skin, that just creeps you out a little bit? Is there nothing you will not lie about or justify?”

Power also reminds us of the difference immigrants make in our country, whether herself as an Irish naturalized US citizen, or the Turkish immigrant who founded Chobani Yogurt or her nanny Maria, to whom she administered the oath of citizenship. Her passion for refugees energized her efforts to get those “in the pipeline” settled as the doors were closing.

The one question that Power fails to wrestle with is the tension between human rights advocacy and the question of whether there are limits to what any given government can or should do. These are the realities her idealism bumps up against. Given the unique place of America in the world, should vigorous international human rights advocacy be a cardinal doctrine of our foreign policy, and should this be backed with American military force if necessary? This seems implicit in Power’s advocacy, but this is not defended, and so foreign policy seems to end up a patchwork of idealism and realpolitik. Power’s resort at the end is that if we cannot change the world, then we change the smaller and individual worlds we can. That may be a good personal response, but is it sufficient for governments?

That said, this is a memoir and not a foreign policy treatise. In addition to a riveting read, I am grateful for the example of someone who does not give way to cynicism or despair, who works for the possible when the ideal eludes one. The importance of bedrock convictions, the support of a strong, loving family, and finding community are lessons from Power’s life in how to sustain one’s ideals, even as one is “educated” to the realities that bump up against the ideal. Hopefully it will help inspire a new generation, including many women, to the public service for the common good which has always been vital to the health of our country and our world.

Review: The Haygoods of Columbus

The Haygoods of Columbus: A Family Memoir, Wil Haygood. New York: Peter Davison Books/Houghton Mifflin, 1997 (The link is to a different, currently in-print edition).

Summary: A memoir of Haygood’s growing up years in Columbus, his extended family, the glory and decline of Mt. Vernon Avenue, and finding his calling as a writer.

Wil Haygood is a distinguished journalist and biographer, having written books on Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Sammy Davis, Jr. He wrote  “A Butler Well Served by This Election,” which served as the basis of the 2013 movie, The Butler, A Witness to History. And he grew up in my current home town of Columbus, Ohio.

This work is one of his earlier works, after becoming established as a journalist with The Boston Globe (he would later write for The Washington Post). In it, he describes what it was like to grow up in Columbus. It’s a story of fishing on the Olentangy River, living for a time with his mother in the Bolivar Arms Apartments (an urban renewal project), and aspiring to play basketball, even faking residency in several different school districts to get a chance to play. He was never very good, but got enough of an education to get into Miami University, where an injury ended his career, and he majored in literature.

The book is subtitled “a family memoir,” and is as much about his family as anything. His parents met in the South and his father Jack, who eventually divorced his mother, Elvira, moved to Columbus because several relatives had jobs there. Elvira followed, Wil and his twin sister Wonder were born, and after the divorce, they moved into Elvira’s parents, Jimmy and Emily Burke. It’s a story of a troubled family. Haygood often didn’t know if Elvira would return from her jaunts on Mt. Vernon Avenue. His step-brother, “Macaroni” was a pimp and a hustler who only could evade the law so long. Another brother, Harry, had dreams of stardom, ending up in a homeless camp in Marin County. I suspect the influence of Jimmy and Emily, hard-working folks who owned their home in Weinland Park may have rubbed off on Wil. Often, it was will, after he was established, who would send money, and help one or another when they were down.

It’s a story about the glory days and decline of Mt. Vernon Avenue, a main street running east from downtown Columbus (before the freeways) that was the cultural heart of the Black community–theaters, jazz joints, groceries, restaurants and clothing shops and churches. Haygood focuses on Carl Brown’s grocery. Brown established his presence by hauling fresh produce, overpriced in other stores, from the South. He describes a chain competitor that came in, and rapidly went under, and Brown’s attempts to hang on, which he did until his death, employing many youth in his store over the years.

It was also the location of The Call & Post, a black weekly newspaper under editor Amos Lynch, one of those who sought to keep Mt. Vernon Avenue alive. After graduation, Haygood attempted a career at acting, ended up back in Columbus working odd jobs, and finally, on a whim applied at The Call & Post. He had a tryout that failed, but Lynch liked his energy and called him back. He covered sports and the courts, and leveraged the position into jobs in Charleston, West Virginia, Pittsburgh, and eventually with The Boston Globe, for whom he was writing at the time of the book.

These three elements, the bonds of family even when it gets messy, the fabric of community, and the finding of calling weave together in Haygood’s account. Along the way, one glimpses the life of Columbus back in the 1950’s to 1980’s (we moved here in 1990), so it was a rich account of the backstory of our adopted home town (complete with Mayor Sensenbrenner, Woody Hayes, old downtown landmarks and Scioto Downs). I identify with the sadness of witnessing the decline of community–the story of Mt. Vernon Avenue could be the story of Market Street or Mahoning Avenue where I grew up–once-vibrant communities that are shadows of their former selves. One reflects on the mystery of finding one’s calling–how an aspiring basketball player ends up a journalist and biographer–the family influences, mentors, and the chance event of submitting an application on a whim. Finally, there are these mysterious bonds of family, a boy finding the love he longed for in his mother and father in his grandparents, how a family deals with its “black sheep” and those who struggle to find themselves, hoping that they will find redemption as “Macaroni” eventually did.

Haygood and I are the same age. His memoir makes me reflect on how the places, people, and times of our lives help shape the people we are. Our stories are different, to be sure, but the elements are not. This memoir helps me understand not only the place where I live but perhaps myself a bit better.