Posts Tagged ‘autobiography’

Cannonball 37: The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom

The Hiding PlaceThe Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine extended an unusual invitation to me: she invited me to go grave-hunting. As it turns out, Corrie ten Boom is buried in Santa Ana, and you can go visit her grave.

I was in high school when I first read her book, The Hiding Place. At the time, I read it more as a Holocaust book than anything else. I remember thinking, “Man, concentration camps suck.” But I don’t remember much else.

Well, before hunting for Miss ten Boom’s grave and standing there wishing I remembered why I thought I ought to admire her, I thought it might enhance the experience to reread the book. Boy, am I glad I did.

I missed so much the first time around. The book isn’t just about the horror of the Holocaust — it’s also about God’s faithfulness, even in the midst of difficult times. Of course the book talks about the amazing ways in which God answered prayers during Corrie’s time in the concentration camps. But it also talks about how He used it to teach her more about Him, and how her faith in Him grew through these terrible trials, and even of how He used various circumstances before Hitler came to power in order to teach her about God’s love.

I was especially impacted by her singleness. I remembered that she died a spinster, but forgot that, at one point, she was deeply in love with someone who ended up breaking her heart. After this happened, her father comforted her by reminding her that, yes, she did love Karel (the young man who ended up marrying someone else), but that God loved him more than even she could. And he encouraged her to pray that God would help her to love Karel with His love. She prayed that prayer and, in years to come, learned to pray it for people who did far worse things to her than disappointing her hopes for marriage.

The Hiding Place isn’t necessarily the greatest work of literature I’ve ever read, but it’s certainly a great testimony of God’s power and faithfulness. It’s easy to see why Miss ten Boom was traveling the world for speaking engagements well into her eighties, until a stroke took her ability to speak in public.

corrie ten boom

And if you ever get a chance, and you’re in the area, visit Corrie’s grave. It’s nothing fancy, and it might take you a while to find it in the section of the graveyard it’s in. But, much like Miss ten Boom herself, it’s simple, unassuming, and faithfully proclaims that “Jesus is Victor.”

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Cannonball 33: They Call Me Coach by John Wooden with Jack Tobin

They Call Me CoachThey Call Me Coach by John Wooden
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

John Wooden is the winningest coach in NCAA history, and a legend in the world of basketball. I spotted his autobiography on a friend’s bookshelf and asked to borrow it. She also insisted that I take The Zookeeper’s Wife. Suffice it to say that I thought this book was the better of the two.

There were three big things that I was left with at the end of the book:

One of the things that really struck me about this book was the way in which he described his former players. He speaks of them with genuine affection and care, and years after they’ve struck out on their own, you can tell that he still thinks about them and loves them. Wooden wasn’t shy about using the word “love” in regard to his players.

Another thing that stuck out to me was his devotion to his wife. He absolutely doted on her, and the way he talked about her was beautiful to see. Nellie Wooden passed away in 1985, but Wooden remained faithful to her memory for the rest of his life. That’s a rare love.

The last thing about Wooden that really made an impression on me was his love for God. He talks about his beliefs with not only conviction and passion, but with much love and affection for his Lord as well. He doesn’t make any apologies for his faith, and he also doesn’t try to make it the focus of the book. But it’s as much a part of the book as it was a part of him.

My only criticism of the book was that it seemed a little disorganized at times. It was written with Jack Tobin, who writes for Sports Illustrated</a<, so I was a little surprised that Tobin didn't rein in his subject a little.

But as far as sports books go, this is a great one, and a must-read for all fans of basketball, sportsmanship, and heroes.

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Cannonball 38: Mao’s Last Dancer by Li Cunxin

Mao's Last DancerMao’s Last Dancer by Li Cunxin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Fact: I’m actually North Korean. My parents lived most of their lives in the South, but both of them originally hail from the North.

When we were kids, my dad would occasionally gather us all ’round the table and tell us tales of North Korea. He would tell us about how his family struggled to survive during the war, and how Communism had ruined the country so that everyone was poor. Families only got a small ration of beef every year, that they would boil over and over again in order to make it last. He would tell us harrowing tales of poverty and oppression.

Then, I grew up and studied the Korean War and realized that my dad wasn’t even in North Korea at that time. In fact, he was only an infant when his parents fled — before the DMZ was set up.

As a result, I grew callous to the suffering of people in Communist countries. In the back of my mind, I always just kind of thought that these tales of poverty were just over-exaggerated by people like my dad who wanted to scare their kids into behaving and being grateful.

But reading Li Cunxin’s autobiography set me straight. In a nutshell: Communism sucks.

Li grew up in rural China during the Cultural Revolution. His family did okay for themselves, and he loved both his mother (niang in Chinese) and his father (dia in Chinese) dearly. He particularly loved his mother and craved more time with her. But, as the sixth of seven sons, he didn’t get much.

He describes his parents’ sacrifices for their survival, and how they worked hard to keep everyone alive. The family, as well as everyone else in the area, survived on a meager diet of dried yams and the occasional protein.

Li’s life changed forever when he was selected to go to Beijing to become a dancer in Mao’s Beijing Dance Academy. He was only eleven years old, and leaving his beloved niang was tortuous. But he knew that he had to do this for the family’s honor.

Li excelled as a dancer under the careful tutelage of many teachers. As he continued to excel, he was offered an opportunity to visit America.

One visit to America was all it took to shatter years of Communist propaganda. When he saw the freedom that the Americans had, he knew that he could never be content living in China again. Li eventually defected to the United States and became a principle dancer for the Houston Ballet.

Oh, and there’s plenty of ballet-stuff in the book, too. As an unashamed owner of Center Stage on DVD, that was super-fun to read.

Chengwu Guo plays Li Cunxin as a teenager in the film version of the book.

Li’s life is an amazing tale of courage and determination. But the parts that resonated most with me were his accounts of his family life. In Communist China, all the Li family had was each other. Their love and devotion to one another helped them to survive conditions that I can’t even imagine. Even after defecting, Li couldn’t be truly happy until he knew that his family was safe.

The writing’s a little clunky, but this isn’t a book written for the sake of literature. It’s the tale of a man, his victory over oppression and poverty, and how his family’s love for him made that all possible.

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Cannonball 31: A Girl from Yamhill by Beverly Cleary

A Girl from YamhillA Girl from Yamhill by Beverly Cleary
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like many other girls my age, I grew up reading Beverly Cleary.

Her books about Ramona Quimby spoke to me like no other books did. While I always told people that my favorite book was Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (a trip to a land of chocolate? Yes, please), I was always inevitably drawn back to Ramona and Beezus and Henry Huggins. While I loved the fantasy world of Willy Wonka, it was the realism of Klickitat Street that always called me back.

It’s a credit to Cleary’s writing that, as a child, I never questioned the time period in which her books were set. Of course, they were set in the present time — for me. I was later shocked (and by “later,” I mean “fifteen minutes ago”) to discover that the first Ramona book I ever read, Ramona and Her Father, was written in 1977, the same year that I was born.

Ramona was just like me. Her family was down on their luck. Her dad, like mine, was really an artist, but had to resort to working at a store in order to make ends meet. She wasn’t that cute. People thought she was a pest more often than not. She got into plenty of trouble when she didn’t mean to. I could identify with Ramona.

Reading Cleary’s memoir of her childhood was like a window into her writing process. You always hear that you should write what you know, and Cleary did just that. But she did it with a rare combination of matter-of-factness and sympathy that no one else seems to be able to do.

Writers these days seem to depend wholly on magic and adventure and angsty drama to captivate the reader. Cleary’s writing is remarkable simply for how unremarkable her subject matter is. She writes about ordinary kids living ordinary lives. But she writes in a way that kids can identify with, and it makes them feel understood. To me, that makes her worth ten J.K. Rowlings.

But I digress. Back to the book I’m supposed to be reviewing. Cleary writes about herself in much the same way that she writes about her characters: matter-of-factly, yet sympathetically. Many of the circumstances in which her characters find themselves were adapted from her own experience.

Despite her unassuming writing style, she lived through some remarkable times. She grew up during the Great Depression. Her father’s having to work at jobs he hated in order to support the family was the inspiration for Mr. Quimby’s job at the local ShopRite.

Cleary relates the stories of her childhood and adolescence in much the same way that she tells her audience about Ramona Quimby and Henry Huggins. The book was a compelling read, and I thoroughly enjoyed every page.

Now, I want to indulge myself for a moment, here, and take a minute to rant about a movie that’s scheduled to come out tomorrow. Ramona and Beezus claims that it’s going to show you Ramona like you’ve never seen her before. “This summer, imagination runs wild!” claims the trailer announcer dude.

Here’s the thing: Ramona didn’t have all that much imagination. Seriously, the extent of her imagination was to make an owl looking off to the side at anything but another owl, or to create a crown for herself out of burs. She didn’t take these huge flights of fancy. She got into scrapes, sure, and her dad thought she had spunk.

The Ramona in this movie seems to fit the generic Hollywood mold of “special” — that is, she has an overactive imagination, an annoyingly irrepressible spirit, and gets through all of her young life’s troubles on sheer sparkle.

But what allowed generations of kids to identify with Ramona was that she was so refreshingly ordinary. It made kids feel as though they were free to be normal. This new Ramona has little in common with Cleary’s Ramona.

And don’t even get me started on Beezus. Beezus is supposed to be depressed and afflicted with acne, not some generically pretty Disney drone.

Thanks, Hollywood, for reducing some of my most treasured childhood memories to a generic Hollywood fluff piece.

For the discerning reader, go read The Girl from Yamhill. If you’re anything like me, you’ll hope that our current recession will at least breed more writers like Beverly Cleary.

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He Probably Drank Dos Equis, Too: Music is My Mistress

Music Is My Mistress (Da Capo Paperback) Music Is My Mistress by Duke Ellington

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I was six years old the first time I ever touched a piano. Being the stereotypical Korean parents that they were, my parents insisted on my taking piano lessons before my feet could even touch the pedals.

Thus began my tempestuous relationship with classical music – I loved to listen to it and hated playing it. I went from being a mediocre pianist to a downright awful violinist. I certainly never blossomed into the prodigy that my parents dreamed of bragging to their friends about.

But I’ll always be thankful for the piano lessons because they paved the way for me to understand and appreciate jazz music.

And jazz has no greater hero than Duke Ellington.

Ellington penned an autobiography in 1973, when he was seventy-four years old. The life experience he’d racked up at that point was impressive. He’d traveled all over the world and become a household name in a time when blacks were allowed to play the hottest clubs, but not to frequent them. His was a truly a life less ordinary.

Ellington describes his childhood, his family, and his introduction into the music scene with no less flair than you’d expect from one of the forefathers of jazz. While his writing doesn’t necessarily flow (he was better at the music than the words), some of his anecdotes about the people he met on his musical journey had me on the floor. When you’re a musician, you meet some real interesting cats.

There are some drawbacks to reading a man’s account of his own life, however. He’s free to omit whatever he chooses. He speaks constantly of his son Mercer, but never mentions who Mercer’s mother was. I had to hop on Wikipedia to discover that her name was Edna Thompson and that she was Duke’s childhood sweetheart. I had to go to WikiAnswers to find out that they were married from 1917 to the late 1920s. Beyond that, I’d probably have to read a biography of Duke Ellington.

But reading Ellington’s firsthand account of his musical escapades was worth the while. It’s almost as good as living it myself.

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