As the 2008 presidential election neared, Washington Post reporter Wil Haygood wanted to write about the life of someone who had worked in the White House and lived through the civil rights movement. He wanted the story to reflect what this historic moment would mean to that person. His search for the perfect subject led him to Eugene Allen, a man who served as White House butler for 34 years. His time working in the White House spanned eight presidential administrations, from Truman to Reagan. Haygood’s article about Allen’s life, “A Butler Well Served by This Election,” was the inspiration for Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a movie coming to theaters in August. In honor of the movie’s release, Haygood’s article is expanded in a new book called The Butler: A Witness to History, which acts as a companion to the film. It brings audiences both the real story of Eugene Allen and a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film.
Allen began working at the White House in 1952 as a pantry man, washing dishes and shining silver, but he was later promoted to butler. He witnessed many significant moments in our nation’s history while he was working in the background. He was there when Eisenhower was on the phone with the Arkansas governor during the Little Rock school desegregation crisis. He was at the White House on the day that President Kennedy was assassinated. Haygood brings readers Allen’s unique perspective on the presidents and the events that shaped the 20th century.
Although the film is largely fictionalized, director Lee Daniels writes that it does also include some real moments from Allen’s extraordinary life. The movie’s A-list cast includes Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Robin Williams, John Cusack, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Terrence Howard. Lee Daniels’ The Butler premieres in theaters on August 16, but you can get a sneak peak here.
“Still, I would be loath to suggest that life intrinsically has themes, because it does not. In this book I narrate a life in overlapping panels of memory and experience.” So begins Howard Norman’s intimate memoir I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place. For the first time, Norman, author of Devotion; The Bird Artist; and What Is Left the Daughter, invites his reader into five distinct and thematically linked points in his journeyed past.
In 1964 Grand Rapids, Michigan, we find young Norman longing for his absentee father. His mother claims that he’s in California but Norman often spots his father in the café from the window of the bookmobile where he shelves books — his first summer job. Here, he discovers the catharsis of writing by secretly penning long letters of heartbreaking criticism to the fathers of everyone he knows.
“Kingfisher Days” takes us along on his extraordinary travels to the Arctic where he’s assigned to transcribe Inuit life histories and folktales. One moment we hear elder Lucille Amorak’s stoic recitation of her poetry; the next we’re beside the young lead singer of a Beatles cover band as he mournfully sings out into the cold, snowy darkness the night news hit that John Lennon had been shot.
Although some moments are heavy with sadness, the angakok, an Inuit shaman, brings both ominous foreboding as well as humor. This roving angakok is convinced that Norman’s presence is a blight against the community, which brings about an odd series of encounters which Norman finds inexplicably bizarre, yet humbling.
In its closing and perhaps most revealing section, we gain access to Norman’s dark yet delicate ruminations on the murder-suicide of poet Reetika Vazirani who violently killed her 2-year-old son and herself while staying in the Norman’s D.C. home. Despite this horrific crime’s descent onto his family’s life, Norman’s private revelations are filled with clarity and, ultimately, grace.
Each one of these engrossing sections is populated by one or more species of birds, from kingfishers to the western oystercatchers. These birds poignantly embody various stages in Norman’s own human migration through life’s pain and beauty.
How does one continue after the death of a child? This is what two mothers contemplate when they are faced with the unimaginable. In The Still Point of the Turning World, Emily Rapp lays bare the utter devastation she and her husband experienced when their infant son Ronan was diagnosed with Tay-Sachs disease, a genetic disorder which is always fatal. Rapp, herself a writer, describes in a heartbreakingly poetic style the dreams and plans she had for Ronan before he was even born, and the course their life together took after the diagnosis. Reminiscent of Tuesdays with Morrie, Rapp draws on different religions, philosophies and myths as she delves deep into her grief and pain, assuming a role no parent wants to play. Rapp eschews the idea of measuring the worth of Ronan’s life by his developmental progress; instead, she learns to focus on the small ordinary moments with her son, determined to make his brief existence count.
In I’ll See You Again: A Memoir by Jackie Hance (with Janice Kaplan), Hance recounts the devastating day in July 2009 when a van being driven by her sister-in-law Diane crashed, killing Hance’s three daughters and five other passengers. Besides coping with the horrific reality of instantaneously losing all of their children, Hance and her husband Warren also had to deal with the family fallout and ensuing publicity. Diane’s body tested positive for alcohol and drugs, which was a complete shock to the family, and there were a number of bloggers and media outlets who blamed the parents for letting their three girls ride with Diane. The Hances’ quest to create meaning out of senseless tragedy led to the establishment of a foundation in honor of the girls, and in 2011, the birth of their fourth daughter. Like The Still Point of the Turning World, this is a painfully beautiful story of emotional frailty balanced with resilience, introspection in the face of loss, and boundless parental devotion. As Rapp muses, “children do not exist to honor their parents; their parents exist to honor them.”
The veil has lifted on the young woman dubbed “Foxy Knoxy” by the media. In Waiting to Be Heard: A Memoir, Amanda Knox recounts how her promising start as an American exchange student in Italy quickly spiraled into a nightmare and kept her abroad much longer than anticipated. Barely two months into her study abroad program in the city of Perugia, Knox found herself at the center of an international media frenzy when her roommate, British exchange student Meredith Kercher, was found murdered. Within days, she was ensnared in the Italian police and justice systems, having little understanding of the language, much less their laws and politics. She and two others were convicted of murder in 2009. Her conviction and that of her then-boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, was overturned on appeal in 2011. The Italian courts are currently reviewing the case.
Knox is studying creative writing, and did pen the entire book. Although it can be burdened at times with staged-sounding conversations and details that fall into the “TMI” category, it is an honest reflection of a young woman who grew up very quickly during the four years she was imprisoned. Knox has recently given several high- profile interviews in conjunction with the release of this book, including with ABC’s Diane Sawyer. Other sources which provide insightful perspective about the case are Nina Burleigh’s The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Trials of Amanda Knox and John Follain’s A Death in Italy: The Definitive Account of the Amanda Knox Case, previously written about here. However, for anyone following the case, the perspective you don’t want to miss is from the person at the center of it all. Finally, Knox herself has her say.
How far would you go to get out of debt? Would you sell your car? Move out of your house? Take a minimum wage job scrubbing toilets in Alaska? Ken Ilgunas, author of Walden on Wheels: On the Open Road from Debt to Freedom, was willing to do almost anything to free himself from the burden of his student loans. Living as frugally as possible, he worked as an Alaskan janitor, hitchhiked his way across the country, and lived in a van to pursue his dream of a debt-free life. With the ideals of Thoreau and the heart of Kerouac, Ilgunas’ journey from loan-ridden student to financially-independent ascetic is in turns humorous, touching, and inspiring.
Ilgunas started his college career similar to many millennials in the mid-2000s, largely oblivious to the quiet specter of loan debt that would slowly accrue over the course of his degree. Purposeless and skill-less, he graduated with a liberal arts degree, no job prospects, and a burning desire to pay off his debt as quickly as possible. But unlike other students who begin a traditional career, Ilgunas set out on a haphazard, occasionally reckless, and strangely successful quest to live as cheaply as possible while earning money in low-wage jobs in very odd circumstances. After working himself out of debt, Ilgunas vowed to remain debt-free forever while also trying to go to graduate school, a feat that seems impossible until he stumbles on the idea of eliminating housing expenses by living secretly out of his “creepy red van.”
Part social experiment, part return to the wild, part ultimate road trip, Walden on Wheels blends idealism and practicality into a remarkably effective solution to the increasingly pervasive problem of coping with a suffocating amount of debt. Millennials, parents of millennials, and those longing for financial freedom will rally around this account of a unique approach to a very common dilemma.
Sheri Booker brings her unique story to readers in her new memoir Nine Years Under: Coming of Age in an Inner-City Funeral Home. Booker began working evenings at Albert P. Wylie Funeral Home on Gilmor Street in West Baltimore when she was 15. Over the nine years that she worked there, she saw families in the most difficult times of their lives as they mourned the loss of loved ones to old age, suicide, disease, and, all too often, street violence. Booker writes that she eventually had to let go of her own feelings to continue to work with their grief-stricken customers every day. In Nine Years Under, she brings their stories to life along with her own.
Readers see the behind-the-scenes world of the funeral home, shedding a new light on a business that is largely unknown to most of us. Although death and grief are constantly present, Booker also brings humor to her story. Some of the stories from her job are too bizarre for most of us to imagine—like the day that she hit a pole at a McDonald’s drive-through while she was transporting a body in the funeral home’s van. Booker’s dark sense of humor and distinctive voice make this memoir one that you won’t want miss.
Riding in a beat-up bus among bald hills and scrub on his way to Namibia, Paul Theroux wondered what was compelling him to take yet another arduous trip. At 72, here he was again: in a parched climate, traveling alone, crossing more borders. In his latest book, The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari, the prolific and highly regarded American writer of travel literature packs his bags for one final journey to Africa and up the little known western coast, where he seeks harmony not just with the continent he has come to love but also himself.
Theroux is no stranger to "the greenest continent." He spent his happiest years in Africa as a young Peace Corps worker almost 50 years ago and has returned several times, writing insightfully along the way. Suggesting this 2011 trip is his last, he dives into the gut of this complicated place. From the slum tourism of Cape Town to the Tsumkwe village crossroads of one of the world's oldest cultures, to being stranded in the Angolan bush, Theroux observes countries slowly sliding into one another. He transports readers smack into the middle of a vividly wrought landscape with his richly detailed, elegant prose, adding his characteristic wry, at times dark, commentary. He is at his best telling stories of the local people he meets while showing no patience for meddling foreigners, like the "trophy hunting for dummies" set or those simply "busybodying.''
With over 40 books behind him, including the classic The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia, Theroux seems to be signaling that this is the end of the line. His aptly titled last chapter is in the form of a question, "What am I Doing Here?" Yes, the Africa he leaves has a plethora of problems, but for fans of this acclaimed literary nomad the answer is simple—bringing us his world.
Her by Christa Parravani is a powerful memoir that explores sisterhood, the bonds of twins and the nature of grief. Christa Parravani is an identical twin to her sister, Cara. Cara dies a tragic death and Christa nearly destroys herself, in an attempt to follow in her footsteps. Her is the biography of the twins but it also serves as a lovely and unflinchingly honest memorial to Cara.
Cara and Christa did not have an easy childhood. As teens and young adults, their behavior veered toward the destructive, including eating disorders and drug abuse. Both sisters were incredibly creative, with Cara as the writer and Christa, the photographer. Cara and Christa remained close throughout their adulthood and continued to experiment with unhealthy habits. After Cara is raped, she begins a downward spiral and never really recovers.
Her is a fascinating memoir about the highly unique dynamic between identical twins. Parravani addresses all the usual perceptions people have about twins such as “twin language” and “twin ESP.” Given the intense connection between twins, the death of one can nearly destroy the other. This is essentially what happened to Christa after Cara’s untimely death. She tried to follow her into death, taking up her most damaging habits, just to be closer to Cara. Parravani has written a touching, raw new memoir. Her love and grief for her sister is almost palpable. Although Her is a very emotional book, Parravani writes in clear, crisp prose, telling the story in an almost matter-of-fact tone that results in powerful, clear-eyed memorial to her twin, sister and best friend.
Anne Perry is an award-winning, bestselling crime and mystery writer, but few know that nearly 60 years ago, she herself was a defendant in one of New Zealand’s most infamous murder cases. Peter Graham details this case in his book Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century. Born Juliet Hulme, an adolescent Perry and her best friend Pauline Parker shocked the country and the world when they brutally murdered Parker’s mother in 1954. The subsequent trial and conviction of the girls led to prison sentences, after which the two partners in crime went their separate ways. Hulme eventually reinvented herself as Anne Perry and launched a successful writing career, while Parker vanished into obscurity and lives a reclusive life on a Scottish island.
Graham does an amazing job bringing the story of the girls’ friendship and the sheer barbarity of the murder to life. He provides the back stories of Hulme, Parker and their family members without bogging down the writing. Hulme and Parker both suffered from illnesses as children, and as a result spent long stretches of time isolated from family and friends. Although professional opinions differ, it’s hypothesized that because of this isolation, both girls developed vivid imaginations and were drawn to each other when they met as young teenagers at school. The girls created their own complex fantasy world which overtook reality, and when threatened with separation from each other, they plotted to kill the person they saw as responsible.
Interest in the case was renewed in the 1990s, with newly published research and several dramatizations of the murder, most notably the critically acclaimed film Heavenly Creatures. For true crime aficionados, this book will leave questions about the true nature of Anne Perry. When asked in one interview if she ever thought of Parker’s mother, she replied, “No. She was somebody I barely knew”.
Most of us have heard the term sociopath before, but we probably don’t know what it really means. We usually hear it in conjunction with criminal activity. It will probably surprise you to learn that one out of every 25 Americans is a sociopath, which means that it’s highly likely that someone you know fits the definition. Most sociopaths aren’t criminals or serial killers as television shows would lead us to believe. They often live their lives without anyone around them realizing what they are. M. E. Thomas brings the reality of the disorder to readers in her unique new memoir Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight. Thomas (a pseudonym to protect her identity) is a successful attorney and law professor and the voice behind SociopathWorld.com. She teaches Sunday school at her church. She is intelligent, confident, and charming. She is one of the 4% of Americans who are sociopaths.
So what exactly is sociopathy? Sociopaths lack the moral compass that directs the lives of most people. They feel no remorse or empathy. Thomas shows readers the reality of life from a sociopath’s unique point of view. She explains that she is neither crazy nor evil. She does interact with others differently than the average person. Like all sociopaths, Thomas’s interactions with others often involve manipulation. To put it bluntly, she is a predator. She lives behind a mask, mimicking others’ behavior to pass for normal. She freely admits to destroying others’ careers to get ahead in her own and is willing to do whatever it takes to get what she wants. Thomas’s story is simultaneously engaging and unsettling. This fascinating first-person narrative may change your view of sociopaths.
Do you know a sociopath? The quiz found here may be both enlightening and unnerving. As Thomas explains, “It is statistically very probable that some people reading this book are sociopaths and have never realized it. If this is you, welcome home.”