Today, the world lost Maya Angelou. Yet we will never lose the irreplaceable voice she used to shape our world to make it a more compassionate and stronger place.
She is most widely known for her first memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, in which she reveals the hardships she endured being both an African-American and a girl in the Jim Crow South. In her memoirs, she expresses such complicated themes as race, identity and womanhood in an honest style that illuminates the human condition. In her last book, Mom & Me & Mom, Angelou investigated the loving yet complex relationship she had with her robust mother, an exceptional person in her own right.
Along with telling her own story, Angelou used her unique voice in other transformative ways. She was a poet. Her stimulating poetry is gathered in The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou. She was a singer, a dancer, an educator and her voice continues to reach far beyond the literary realm. Angelou was a vigorous civil rights advocate, working alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Multiple presidents honored her linguistic power by having her speak as the heart of the nation. In her words and throughout her life, Angelou proved "one isn't necessarily born with courage, but one is born with potential. Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can't be kind, true, merciful, generous or honest." She embodied these virtues and instilled them in others, to the benefit of us all.
America’s longest-running syndicated television show, Soul Train, receives deserved attention in two new titles focusing on the lasting legacy of this landmark production. The show debuted in 1971 and continued airing through 2006. Those 35 years were marked by groundbreaking moments, future stars, celebrity performances and thousands of Soul Train Lines.
In Soul Train: The Music, Dance and Style of a Generation, Questlove (drummer and frontman for The Roots, the in-house band for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon) celebrates the show he loved and offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse from conception to conclusion with features on the many artists whose careers skyrocketed following an appearance. Think Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder, LL Cool J and Lenny Kravitz! He also highlights the changes the show made during its long run, including the departure of creator and host Don Cornelius in 1993. A forward from Gladys Knight, a preface from Nick Cannon and Questlove’s exclusive access to the show’s archives all combine to create a volume rich in history, music and culture.
Music critic and novelist Nelson George offers a history of the revolutionary show in The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture & Style. The show debuted in October of 1971, seven years after the Civil Rights Act, and was unlike any previous variety show. Don Cornelius, a former radio reporter, was inspired by the civil rights movement to create a venue to highlight the cultural preferences of young African-Americans. It turned out that the music from a wide range of genres, the innovative dance moves and the fantastic fashions had wide crossover appeal and staying power. Many of the performers, including dancers Jody Watley and Rosie Perez and singers Aretha Franklin and Barry White, share memories and add insight into this fabulous show that revolutionized entertainment and promised “a groove that will make you move real smooth.”
On February 9, 1964, the Beatles performed on The Ed Sullivan Show and more than 70 million television viewers tuned in. This landmark appearance transcended television and these photos offer a glimpse at history in the making. On February 9, CBS will air The Night that Changed America featuring performances from a wide range of musicians in a spectacular salute. Over the last 50 years, the Beatles have been the subject of much study, but two new titles offer fresh perspectives on the phenomenon, the era and the men behind the Fab Four.
The Beatles are Here! by Penelope Rowlands features essays and interviews with other musicians, fans and writers. Cyndi Lauper, Billy Joel, Fran Lebowitz and Joe Queenan are among those who share their personal recollections. Rowlands does an excellent job of not only depicting the hysteria but also recognizing the cultural and economic impact the Lads from Liverpool had on individuals and the American music industry. Rowlands herself was an ardent Beatlemaniac and this collection arose from her own experiences. She is one of five screaming girls captured in an iconic photograph that has been published around the world and serves as the book’s cover.
Historian John McMillian explores the Beatles in light of their relationship with that other band from Britain in Beatles vs. Stones. In the 1960s the two biggest bands in the world were the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The two were often depicted as rivals, but this was more media myth than actuality. In an effort to increase profit, managers fueled the flames of this fake feud through clever marketing. Thus, the Beatles were cute and likeable, despite their hardscrabble Liverpool backgrounds, while the Stones, mostly from the London suburbs, were cast as the edgy bad boys. McMillan’s primary source research adds to the engaging narrative, which transports readers across continents as he explores these two legendary groups, their relationships and their enduring impact.
Never hesitant to state his strong opinion and create controversy, Morrissey has been a lightning rod since he burst onto the scene as The Smiths’ frontman in the 1980s. Now, with Autobiography, he sets his record straight on the many phases of his life and recording career. Whether or not you find him a hopelessly depressing poseur or are a longtime fan and follower (there really is little middle ground!), this stream-of-consciousness memoir will be of interest to most anyone who listened to the music of the era.
Starting with his Manchester childhood and school days, the singer outlines his life through memories that are by turns gauzy and pointed. He shows a surprisingly tight relationship with his family, and includes the tragic deaths of relatives and friends, many of which have seemingly affected his songwriting and have haunted him to this day. Much of the book, naturally, focuses on the many people who Morrissey feels have wronged him. The much-heralded rift between him and his Smiths writing partner Johnny Marr is fairly minor compared to the vitriol Morrissey retains for Mike Joyce, former Smiths drummer, and the British judge that ruled in Joyce’s favor when it came to recording royalties. The usual suspects such as the English music press, the monarchy, Margaret Thatcher, radio DJs, etc. are also the recipients of his bitterness.
While there are no chapters or other breaks in his memoir, it reads quickly. Regarding his personal life, he doesn’t directly address his ambiguous sexuality, and the encounters he has with various celebrities are more interesting than mere name-dropping. He places a focus on the constant touring and the fans more than on his songwriting and records produced. By turns heartbreaking, intriguing, frustrating and peppered with Morrissey’s well-known wit, there is no doubt that Autobiography is a product solely his own – no ghostwriters here.
Mary Poppins, Julie Andrews and Walt Disney: for most of us, the three are linked together with supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, tea parties on the ceiling and Jane and Michael Banks of 17 Cherry Tree Lane. The name P.L. Travers, however, is recognizable by only the most diehard of Poppins fans, as she is the author of the Mary Poppins children’s book series, as well as the subject of the biography Mary Poppins, She Wrote by Valerie Lawson.
P.L. Travers was born in Australia and christened Helen Lyndon Goff; she later adopted Pamela Lyndon Travers as a pseudonym. Travers valued her privacy, and felt protective of the Mary Poppins characters and stories. Lawson explains that each contained elements of Travers’ own rather peripatetic and often difficult life. Initially, Walt Disney encountered resistance from Travers when he approached her about adapting her Poppins books to a film version. The “real” nanny is sharp-tongued, mysterious, controlling and a bit vain. Travers felt Disney would “replace truth with false sentimentality” and called Disney’s movie-making “vulgar.” In the end, Disney’s coffers trumped Travers’ misgivings, and the Julie Andrews version of Mary triumphed on the silver screen.
Expect to hear more about P.L. Travers after the December release of the new movie Saving Mr. Banks which follows Disney as he woos Travers for the film rights to the now-classic movie Mary Poppins.
During an interview following Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994, his mother remarked, "Now he's gone and joined that stupid club. I told him not to join that stupid club." Journalists began referring to “the curse of the 27 Club” when writing about the surprisingly large group of musicians whose lives were all cut tragically short when they were 27 years old. Howard Sounes explores this sad coincidence in 27: A History of the 27 Club Through the Lives of Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse.
While Sounes lists 50 musicians who died at age 27, he examines the facts surrounding the lives and deaths of the six most iconic in his book. He calls the idea of the 27 Club a media construct and maintains that their deaths at the same age are merely a coincidence. In reality, the common factors in their lives were difficult childhoods, addiction, personality disorders, self-destructive behavior and a fast rise to fame during their early 20s. Given these circumstances, Sounes argues that the fact that each died at such a young age was not surprising. This book is an antidote to the media hype and Internet mythology surrounding the 27 Club. The author brings a measured examination of these stars’ lives and tragic deaths.
Sounes recently recounted the events of the final hours of some of these musicians’ lives in this Rolling Stone feature.
Art historian Paul Koudounaris has developed a grotesque but incredibly interesting research niche as he uncovers Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures & Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs. In this, the follow-up to his 2011 Coup de Coeur award-winning Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses, Koudounaris continues to delve deep into the centuries-old mystery of the veneration and bejeweling of full skeletons and individual bones of Christian “saints” in Europe. In the past, the relics have made their appearances only once a year at festivals, but the author was granted unprecedented access to examine and photograph these unique marvels.
Beginning in the early middle ages, the remains of various Christian martyrs were buried in the Roman catacombs. Long forgotten, the skeletons filled the underground passages until the era of the Protestant Reformation. In the late 1500s through the following century, many Catholic churches were looking for relics that would help to invigorate their parishioners to remain devoted. These churches, mostly in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, were sent authenticated bones from The Vatican with official documentation identifying them as having belonged to early Christian martyrs. In the intervening years, many of these unofficial saints have been “decanonized” by Roman Catholic officials.
Individual examples and stories of the relics and the stunning manner that they are displayed make up the bulk of this fascinating look at the crossroads of religion, art and history. Sumptuous photographs of the artifacts in all their dazzling glory, including a breathtaking double-page spread of the “Chapel of Bones” at the Basilica of St. Ursula in Cologne, complete this unique volume.
Three starlets share very different stories of life during Hollywood’s Golden Age. In Rita Moreno: a Memoir, the actress recalls her childhood move from lush Puerto Rico to gritty New York City where she found her passion for singing and dancing. She made her Broadway debut at 13 and eventually headed to Hollywood where she changed her name and coped with constant typecasting. Moreno shares the details behind her relationships with some of Tinseltown’s heaviest hitters, including Elvis Presley, Howard Hughes, and Marlon Brando. Eventually, Moreno found happiness in marriage and motherhood and she remains one of the few performers, and the only Hispanic, to win two Emmys, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony.
Two years before her death in 1990, Ava Gardner was strapped for cash and didn’t want to part with her jewels so she decided to sell her unvarnished story. She had a change of heart when she felt the conversations exposed her as too vulgar. Her ghost writer Peter Evans unearthed those bawdy recollections and with permission of her estate shares them in Ava Gardner: the Secret Conversations. Readers will savor the particulars of her marriages to Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw, and Frank Sinatra, as well as her flings with George C. Scott and Howard Hughes (again!). Gardner, one of the great beauties to grace the silver screen, is no-nonsense and her stories are indeed salty, but she is also funny, frank and reflective.
Dolores Hart catapulted to fame when she starred opposite Elvis Presley in her 1957 film debut, Loving You. Nine films, a Broadway appearance, and several television roles later, Hart stunned the world when she turned away from Hollywood and her fiancé, and took the vows of a contemplative Benedictine nun. In The Ear of the Heart: An Actresses’ Journey from Hollywood to Holy Vows, Hart and co-author Richard DeNeut, share her insider’s perspectives of such wildly different worlds and her serenity shines through the pages. Check out God is the Bigger Elvis, the Oscar winning short film for more on the remarkable Mother Hart.
British historian Kathleen Walker-Meikle collects centuries-old examples of canine representation in her succinct but illuminating work Medieval Dogs, published by the British Library. While there has been considerable research into the earliest beginnings of the human/canine relationship, and countless looks into how dogs and people complement each other today, it is fascinating to look at the ways dogs were portrayed in what is considered to be a less enlightened historical time.
Brilliantly illustrated and well captioned manuscripts and paintings from around Europe are featured, along with brief but telling text. The pre-Renaissance art, without linear perspective, speaks to a bygone age. Stories of how dogs were part of abbey life among monks and nuns show a push/pull acceptance of the animals. In some cases, dogs were happily allowed to run free throughout abbeys, while in other cases, they were more grudgingly permitted — aside from sanctuaries and dining areas. As with medical treatment for humans, veterinary skills during the medieval years were basic and often fraught with suggestions that are chilling today. It's surprising to see how many breeds from our era, such as Greyhounds, terriers and spaniels, were already classified as early as the 16th century.
Loyalty is shown in many drawings of canines that remained with their fallen masters after a battle. Representations of the dogs in these and other illustrations (such as the many lapdogs depicted in royal settings) show how people of the period valued their animal companions. While rampant superstition during medieval times did not always portray dogs in the best light, their frequent appearances within the art and manuscripts of the period show the evolution of the human/dog relationship to what it now has become.
The darling daughters of Downton Abbey would surely have shopped at Selfridge’s, England’s first modern department store. In Shopping, Seduction, & Mr. Selfridge, Lindy Woodhead transports readers to a bygone era when nattily dressed ladies and gentlemen made shopping an event. Woodhead also shines a light on the man behind the mannequins, the inimitable Harry Gordon Selfridge.
Selfridge began as a stock boy working at Marshall Field’s in Chicago and eventually became a partner in that established business. His dreams were big and at the turn of the century he was able to make his magic happen in England. He wanted to bring to London a store that was unrivaled in extravagance. It took several years, but London’s first dedicated department store built from scratch opened in a halo of hype. The publicity was well-deserved, as the store really was larger than life. With six acres of floor space and every conceivable amenity, Selfridge’s was a legacy to limitless luxury. There were elevators and a bank, an ice skating rink and a restaurant with a full orchestra. Shopping was like an entertainment at Selfridge’s, where regular customers could mingle with celebrities such as Anna Pavlova and Noel Coward.
Woodhead tells the story of the retail revolution of the early twentieth century, but also focuses on the rise and fall of one visionary, but ultimately doomed man. Selfridge’s life was as large as his store and filled with mistresses, mansions, and money. This is the fascinating true story that inspired the Masterpiece series Mr. Selfridge, starring Jeremy Piven, currently airing on PBS.