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los angeles diaries

The Los Angeles Diaries: A Memoir by James Brown

 

 

James Brown begins with that phenomenon of nature that all of us here in the Inland Empire know: the Santa Ana winds. We’ve seen the uprooted trees and downed powerlines in front of our schools, the smashed fences in our backyards. And we know about and fear the fires, and that less natural phenomenon, the arsonist.

 

And so Brown begins by speaking directly to our experience, and continues to do so. Though heartrending, many of the details of his biography are not so uncommon. There are the crazy lives he and his siblings lived with their unbalanced mother, his drug abuse at an early age, his alcoholism and the way it wrecked his marriage. That he not only survived all of this, but later moved on to have a creative life would be reason enough for me to recommend the book to you.  Well, that and the fact that Brown doesn’t waste any time blaming others for his addiction and missteps.

 

Fortunately, there is so much more here, packed into a tightly narrated work, in what feels like a group of loosely-woven short stories, organized not by chronology but through emotional connections.  For example, the thoughts on the Santa Anas lead to the story of Brown’s mother leaving him in the car while she runs out to set an apartment building on fire, an act which costs a life.

 

The book itself is littered with (well-deserved) praise from many famous people, but the comment by Janet Fitch is the one that struck me as closest to my experience with The Los Angeles Diaries: “Oddly inspirational, the tale of the last man standing.” In part, Fitch is referring to the fact that both Brown’s sister and brother committed suicide. This is certainly a story of survival—and of survivor’s guilt. That is it so well written is the bonus that makes me want to hand it to you when you when come in to the library for a biography.

 

Since I am dealing with high school and with assignments, I want to add the housekeeping details that only pertain to our particular situation: The Los Angeles Diaries is exactly 200 pages long—that is, the exact number of pages that many teachers use as a minimum requirement. This, I know, will thrill some of you. Since each chapter reads like a stand-alone story, I don’t think you’ll have any problems stopping and starting; you won’t get lost, and each new day’s reading will be a sort of fresh tale. Oh—and you are going to love the story about how the alcohol-addled Brown, in hopes of making up with his wife, buys her a pot-bellied pig.

 

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no easy day

No Easy Day: The Autobiography of a Navy SEAL

by Mark Owen with Kevin Maurer

The Firsthand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama Bin Laden

As you read the sub-sub title above, you know why this book has been a bestseller, available even at Costco, where everyone can pick it at deep discount. Who doesn’t want to know what really happened in the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound?

Mark Owen—a pseudonym, meant to protect the mission, although Owen’s real name is very easy to find online—was there. And he gives the reader all the thrilling, frightening details of the night Bin Laden was killed and its aftermath. You can follow the story by studying the accompanying illustrations of the compound showing who was in which building and where one of the helicopters crashed at the outset of the mission. It’s heart-smacking stuff.

But before Owen gets to that story, he details the long history of his life as a Navy SEAL—of becoming a member of SEAL Team Six, of the many missions he participated in, including the rescue of Richard Phillips, captain of the Maersk Alabama, which was captured by Somali pirates in 2009. Most of his service is the grind you’d expect it to be, with details on all the equipment special service members use, on how they store and pack it, on the patterns of their training, and how they develop friendships among their members.

I’d like to say that all of that description is breathtaking stuff because—well, who doesn’t want to have nothing but praise for a hero? But the truth is that I think those many chapters before the Bin Laden raid will have the most appeal to teens thinking about service to the country—whether in special forces or not.

I think it’s OK to tell the truth and say that much of this is pedestrian stuff. I probably should have read it in a few sitting, but I kept walking away from it, starting (and finishing) another book, then coming back. I made the mistake of not looking through the photos of military equipment, such as guns and helicopters, that are in the middle of the book until I read to the middle. I suggest you look at these and read the descriptions before starting the book.

I ended up liking No Easy Day as a whole because the truth is that being a hero isn’t something that happens overnight. The fact that Owen went through years of training, some of it grueling (some of it boring), and also had to be in the right place at the right time before he could participate in the mission are important things to know. If you think you can just walk into military service and do this sort of thing, then you must read this book for a reality check. Lots of preparation for big events (and I’m thinking in any walk of life, not just military) is about being willing to slog through the training and practice.

Owen is grateful for the service of many elite forces—the SEALs and others who work with them, such as EOD specialists. He is donating much of the proceeds from the sale of this book to organizations that help these folks, such as the All in All the Time Foundation. And he gives us ideas of how we can support our troops—ideas that beat the heck out of throwing a yellow ribbon magnet on the back of the car and calling it a day.

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Until Tuesday by Luis Carlos Montalvan  Until Tuesday

 

 

Montalvan returned from two extended tours in Iraq a wounded warrior. Two Iraqis attempted to assassinate him because he was working hard to stop bribery and a thriving black market of US goods where he was stationed.

 

 

Though Montalvan knew he was hurt, he didn’t get all of the medical care he needed, partly because he was afraid that admitting how bad he felt, including the fact that he had posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), would hurt his army career. Above all, he wanted to be a good soldier.

 

 

Finally, after three years of terrific back pain and unbearable migraines, after self- medicating and turning to alcohol, Montalvan learned that he had three cracked vertebrate and several brain injuries. He was growing distant from his family. His father, a Cuban American whom Montalvan describes as having a macho code, believed that he didn’t want to get better. When he attempted to get help from the Veterans’ Administration Hospital, he was forced to see a different doctor with each visit, one who always asked, “So, what’s wrong with you?” This is the exact wrong treatment for PTSD because strange situations invoke the symptom of needing to be on high alert.

 

What saved Montalvan from self-destructive drinking, withdrawal from loved ones, and a phobia of strangers and public spaces? Tuesday, the golden retriever that he received as one of the first dogs trained for wounded warriors.

 

 

Tuesday was a graduate of Puppies Behind Bars, a program in which inmates help to train dogs that will go to wounded vets or become EOD dogs. It was great to learn about this program and how it helps both inmates and soldiers. The man who helped to train Tuesday had been in prison for thirty years. After training seven dogs—and having an unheard of 100% success rate—he was paroled. What could he do for a living on the outside after all that time? Train more dogs, of course.

 

 

Part of Montalvan’s story is political. He discusses his sense of betrayal by the United States government—both of service personnel and of the Iraqi people who helped the Americans on the promise that the US would protect them. On this, the author has much to say—how the war was conducted with insufficient oversight, how high ranking officials lied about the troops having enough members or enough equipment so that the picture given to the media was rosy (and totally false). Montalvan tells a sorry tale about his best Iraqi friends, who, after devoting themselves to the US cause, were left to be murdered or flee the country and fend for themselves as nearly starving refugees. He also tells the very discomforting story of a military couple having a baby. Before the baby is born, they know she is missing several vital organs, but don’t abort her because the military (for moral reasons) doesn’t cover abortion. Instead, the baby is born, and suffers torment for several weeks before dying—and an infant death was the only possible outcome. The couple splits. Montalvan is certainly making a statement about morality.  Not everyone will like everything that he has to say—but he regards it as a point of honor to tell the truth about his experience in war. He wants the reader to understand why we lost the war for the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Iraqis, and he lays it on corrupt and incompetent leadership.

 

Montalvan also regards it as a point of honor to tell the truth about the violation of the rights of the disabled, especially those with service dogs. Many store owners, bus drivers, subway employees, restaurant owners and more keep Montalvan away because they don’t think Tuesday is really a service dog, although he wears a vest. (They expect to see a harness such as guide dogs for the blind use.) After undergoing persistent harassment, which exacerbated his PTSD, Montalvan found that his new tour of duty was to education companies about service dogs.

 

 

This memoir is both a heartwarming and cautionary tale—not an easy mix to write. It’s one of several good books I’ve read recently about the heroism of our military men and women on the ground and our lack of support for them when they want to tell us the truth about war. But we need to hear that truth, and reading Until Tuesday is a good way to start.

 

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Bossypants by Tina Fey

Bossypants is the most fun biography I’ve read. As you probably know, Fey was a writer and then an actor on Saturday Night Live. She produces and stars in the TV comedy 30 Rock and has won numerous awards, including Emmys. In her autobiography, she takes a wacky look at her life. One of the best things about her is that she doesn’t take herself too seriously. She treats others kindly in her telling of growing up (well, mostly—beware if you were a girl who stole her boyfriend). Based on her own upbringing by older, loving, yet stern parents, Fey gives advice on raising “an achievement-oriented, obedient, drug-free, virgin adult.” Her love interests and honeymoon are hilarious, and her work with male comedy writers is enlightening. (OK, maybe they are a little gross.)

I asked my husband to read this book, and while he liked it, he didn’t enjoy it as much as I did because, as he said, its audience is women and girls. I think that’s true. This is really a feminist book, couched in comedic riffs on gender-based issues and raising children. Fey has a lot of great advice for girls who will soon go to college or enter the workplace. Granted, she doles it out with some off-color language and some bawdy stories, but her points are well-taken. I think one of the most important is this: male coworkers will always question what you do and tell you they don’t like what you do. If the man is your boss, you have to figure out how to get through that. But if the man who questions you or your motives is just another coworker, you just need to tell him that you don’t care what he thinks about what you do or say. That’s advice I wish I’d had as a young woman, new in the working world.

Some teachers have asked students to read a biography by a famous American. Unfortunately, students can usually only think of two famous Americans and everyone tries to get the same two books. So, when you get this assignment, think about Bossypants. It’s a lot if fun and Fey’s advice is pretty solid.

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