Deliver Me From Evil

They say that sometimes real life is stranger than fiction. They say “you just can’t make this stuff up.” I suppose this story of horrific abuse suffered by Alloma Gilbert and her foster brothers and sisters falls into this category. There are a lot of these child abuse memoirs out there, the covers all look the same. They’re all white with a sad-looking little kid on the front and a sad title in a hand-written style font. I never intended to get really into them as a genre, but I wanted to read just one. I wanted to learn the truths of the way some unfortunate people have had to grow up. I think everybody should.

The third thing they say, is that you should never treat anyone badly, because you don’t know their story. This particular story puts that idea firmly into focus. Even after Alloma – renamed Harriet because her birth name was claimed by her foster mother to be evil – escapes her personal hell she continues to get abused in various ways by the people she encounters in life. It’s impossible not to be heartbroken for her and anxiously read on, hoping she’ll finally learn what it means to be loved again. This isn’t a hard task – this book is an absolute page-turner. But it is difficult to take in the gory details. Her casual and conversational style sets you right next to her, and you feel her fear and pain. She describes her life with the deeply evil Eunice Spry without sensationalism, but with the modest hope that one day she will escape.

There’s really not much else to say about this except that it will really make you appreciate the life that you have. There will always be someone out there who has it much harder than you, sometimes unspeakably so. If she could get through this and triumph, you can do anything.

Other recommended reads: Nothing here yet!

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In the President’s Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect

When I was a teenager, I wanted to be president of the United States. That sounds pretty normal, but this was really more of a joke – I always knew perfectly well it wouldn’t be possible, because I’m Canadian. I also don’t possess the money or the skills in any degree whatsoever. I’m not fit to run an office, never mind THE office. But my love of the US has remained. Their culture and history are incredibly rich and complex, with no end to the fascinating things there are to learn about it. That culture is the dominant one in our world today, so that also means that no matter where you’re from, this information is completely relevant. Because of their power, their politics are relevant to us all as well.

On the surface this book reads like gossipy trash. Much of the first half is devoted to information about the private lives of presidents and those close to them, and the truth about what kind of people they really were as told by secret service agents who worked very closely with them on a routine basis. The information is at times hilarious, at others infuriating, but not altogether surprising when you consider the very nature of politics. The agents quoted in the book often saw these politicians and their families in their most intimate moments, far from anything the American public would ever have the opportunity to see. It’s full of anecdotes about not only the private lives of the presidents but of assassinations, assassination attempts, and through these even an exciting gun fight or two. What I thought going in might be a fairly dry book turned out to be a hell of a fun read.

I always knew, through just plain common sense, that politicians were not all they appeared to be. That they had secrets, and they were dishonest. But this was a fairly vague concept to me, and as someone not blessed with the ability to understand politics, it was something I had few if any real examples of. This book really puts it out there in brazen detail, and it can be a lot to take in. Even those you were sure of as being at least less evil than most sometimes have the most appalling secrets. It just might turn your perceptions of the presidency upside down. It may or may not utterly destroy any illusions you had.

The second half of the book gives details about the other side of what it’s like to work in the secret service – poor management, major dysfunction, and horrifying oversights that daily risk the lives of some of the most important people on earth. The information is shocking, and it’s clear that a complete overhaul needs to be done. The book also does a very good job of trying to get to the root of all of these problems, explaining their origins, how agents at various levels of the organization feel about them, and what needs to be done to fix them. It really is hard to overstate how serious the many of the secret service’s faults are.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Some first families were truly decent and fantastic people, and they’re given the credit due to them. Some are those you wouldn’t necessarily expect. The book has received criticism over its content, stating that it’s cruel to expose details of anyone’s private life for all to see. But Ronald Kessler makes valid points here defending its existence. There’s a lot of substance in this trash heap. If you don’t pay attention, you might miss it. In a way I can see the argument. Bringing attention to the many loopholes in security seems irresponsible at best, however this information is important, as is the information about who the presidents and their families really are. You just can’t fix a problem if you don’t know what it is or that it’s even there.

And it has a pretty big lesson to teach. Just because you’ve reached the top of your career doesn’t mean you’ve reached your full potential. Many US presidents got there by incredibly dishonest means and were far from being good people. To me, this takes away much of the value of achieving that highest of positions. Really meeting your potential has to do with being the best person you can be, honestly. It’s not related to your career or money or people’s praise. Your value is independent of others noticing it. This book explains that assassins and would-be assassins feel the opposite, that you’re nobody until you’re noticed, but their mistake is the same as those abhorrent presidents, just a lot more obvious. I’m not the least bit disappointed that I could never be president (or any other well-known somebody) because I would be an awful one. My value lies elsewhere. Guilty pleasure as reading this book may feel, this lesson alone makes it worth reading. Kessler’s brutal honesty about those we trust to run the country might be a hard pill to swallow, but it’s one we desperately need.

Other recommended reads: Nothing here yet!

Life in a Medieval Village

Life in a Medieval Village

In it’s simplicity, Life in a Medieval Village reminds me of my 8th grade humanities class. The problem is, that class had a lot more style. We even had a medieval fair in the school library at the end of the semester. But this book is extremely well-researched. So well in fact that after reading one anecdote on a certain subject I often had to skip over four more. It’s full of quote after quote from contemporary court rolls too, also demanding to be skipped. But at least it made this already short book a quick read. This would actually be a great book to hand out in those humanities classes. All the information is here, in a way that anyone can understand, and it’s right to the point. And the lack of style, while boring for the layman, means no unnecessary homework time for a high schooler. It’s also not written in grand academic style, which would be a total snoozefest.

What I did find interesting was how very intermingled religion, politics, and the economy were at this period. They were all linked, as the peasants and villeins were to the lord they served, and remained virtually locked together this way for hundreds of years. While this book in theory is intended to describe life in medieval villages across Europe, it focuses almost exclusively on the real village of Elton in Huntingdonshire, England. This gives the anecdotes and history an excellent sense of continuity, but left me feeling like other areas were being unfortunately neglected, and this is a terrible omission to make. Britain is often the focus of histories theoretically pertaining to all of Europe, just as New York is so often the focus of histories theoretically pertaining to all of America. I would have found this study to be more valuable if it had perhaps focused on three or four cities in different countries instead of just the one. It wouldn’t have been too great a departure from the structure of the book as it already stands, and we would have the additional benefit of comparing and contrasting the structure and development of society in a few different areas. There’s no way that they were all the same. This certainly doesn’t make it a worthless study in any sense, but I feel like it should at least be retitled to indicate the British focus.

It’s impossible not to compare this to another book I read this year, Hubbub: Filth, Noise & Stench in England, about every day life in the early modern period, roughly 400-500 years after life described in Life in a Medieval Village. This was similar in subject matter, but vastly different in approach. Hubbub focused on the oft neglected unpleasant side of life for every day people, and was an absolute riot to read. Its focus was on four English cities. The intent here is to focus on England alone, but keeping the spotlight on four different cities allow us to get a better scope of the issues. While both focus on the every day ordinary person, Hubbub focused more on the negative aspects of life and the experiences of specific individuals, while Life in a Medieval Village is more about the structure that supports that every day life, and the larger group of people living it. This is interesting stuff, if you like history, but it definitely lacked that personal touch. I’m glad I read Life in a Medieval Village, but part of me can’t help but wish Hubbub had gone over there and shaken some life into it.

Other recommended reads: Hubbub: Filth, Noise & Stench in England, Life in a Medieval City, The Great Mortality