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Bloggers

 

A Year in the City of Lights

Paris in LoveEloisa James is the pen name for Fordham literature professor Mary Bly. The daughter of the award-winning poet Robert Bly and short story author Carol Bly, James began writing romances because her husband (an Italian knight!) wanted to wait until they were more financially secure to have a second child. Today, she has approximately 3.5 million books in print in 13 different languages and is a frequent inhabitant of the New York Times bestseller list. 

 

James decided to move her family to Paris in 2009, following her mother’s death and her own struggle with breast cancer.  James chronicles this exhilarating year abroad in Paris in Love: A Memoir.The cast includes the aforementioned husband, Alessandro, also a professor and the only one who could speak French. Her children, Anna, 11 and Luca, 15, round out this appealing family. Both were initially less than impressed with French schools and society. For more on this delightful family, take a look at the book's own website.

 

James’ regular enthusiasts will savor this funny slice of life, and new readers will quickly be drawn in to this excellent memoir which is also a look at marriage and family and even includes recipes! Eat, Pray, Love’s Elizabeth Gilbert noted that, “Reading this memoir was like wandering through a Parisian patisserie in a dream. I absolutely loved it.”

 

Readers who appreciate the humorous tone to James’ writing, should definitely try some of her novels which are infused with wit and modern sensibilities. Start with her Happily Ever After series (A Kiss at Midnight, When Beauty Tamed the Beast, and The Duke is Mine), which are retellings of famous fairy tales and can be read in any order. After all, who doesn’t like to read a "Once upon a time" story every now and then? 

Maureen

 
 

A Radical Life

Panther BabyThe new memoir Panther Baby: A Life of Rebellion and Reinvention recounts Jamal (Eddie) Joseph’s journey from straight-A student to member of the revolutionary, criminal underground, and finally from convict to the chair of Columbia University's School of the Arts film division.

 

Eddie Joseph was orphaned at a very early age. He was raised in the black ghetto in the Bronx in the 1960s by an elderly black working-class couple, Noonie and Pa Baltimore. Coming of age in a highly charged era, Joseph quickly becomes enamored with the image of the Black Panthers. On seeing Black Panthers for the first time on television he says: “Look at those dudes, I thought. They’re crazy. They got black leather coats and berets, carrying guns, scaring white people, reading communist books. They’re crazy. I immediately wanted to join.”

Upon finally finding the Panthers, he realizes they are different than he had first imagined. They arm him with books, not guns. Very early on, Eddie is rechristened as Unbuntu Usa Jamal, or “he who comes together in the spirit of blackness.” He later learns the meaning is entirely fabricated but decides to keep the name, anyway. Jamal Joseph soon finds his place in the party. The Black Panthers help him figure out his place in the world and give meaning to his life. A gifted public speaker, he quickly becomes one of the youngest spokespeople for the party. He works closely with Afeni Shakur (late rapper Tupac Shakur’s mother) and finds himself giving speeches at college campuses, community centers and cocktail-party fundraisers, rubbing elbows with the likes of Leonard Bernstein and Tom Wolfe.

 

The 1960s become more radical and Joseph becomes more involved in the underground (sometimes criminal) activities of the party. He spends two major stints in jail, once for conspiracy charges and later for attempting to aid underground fugitives, he is sent to Leavenworth Prison for twelve years. It is in the infamous Leavenworth Prison that he rediscovers his love for theater. He eventually earns three degrees while in prison and is now the chair of Columbia University’s School of the Arts film division.

Panther Baby works on multiple levels. It’s a fascinating memoir and coming of age story. Jamal Joseph reflects on his experience as an orphan and as a young black man growing up in the Bronx, trying to figure out who he is and how he fits in to the world around him. The book also succeeds on a broader level. Through Joseph’s individual story, we’re given a deeper understanding of this history of the Black Panthers and an overall picture of what revolutionary politics looked and felt like in the 1960s. Panther Baby is a clear-eyed inspirational story that will appeal to both teen and adult readers.
 

 

Zeke

 
 

A 5-foot-tall Metal Chicken Named Beyoncé and Other Adventures

Let's Pretend This Never HappenedPopular blogger Jenny Lawson has written a new memoir that will appeal to fans of David Sedaris, Laurie Notaro, and Chelsea Handler.  In Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: (A Mostly True Memoir), Lawson’s writing is hilarious, honest, and often profane. 

 

Lawson begins by taking readers through her delightfully weird childhood and upbringing in rural Texas.  Like many people, Lawson says her life and family are crazy, but she is certain that her family is crazier than yours!  Her father is a taxidermist, a profession which brought about some bizarre situations in Lawson’s life like the night he created a dead-squirrel hand puppet named Stanley to show his young daughters. 

 

She goes on to tell readers about her life now with her long-suffering husband Victor and their daughter.  Readers will laugh out loud while reading Lawson’s stories about a scorpion infestation in her house, her time working in human resources, and her misadventures with a 5-foot-tall metal chicken named Beyonce. 

 

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened also has some brutally honest moments.  Lawson opens up about her heartbreaking miscarriages, and her ongoing struggle with anxiety disorder.  In the end, she faces serious challenges along with the absurdities in life and manages to comes out laughing.

 

Lawson’s award-winning blog, thebloggess.com, also reflects warped sense of humor and ongoing love of strange taxidermy.  Lawson’s irreverent writing style is not for the easily offended, but her skewed sense of humor and sardonic wit will bring readers back for more.

Beth

 
 

The King Has Gone to the Village

King PeggyLife changes in unimaginable ways when Peggielene Bartels, a naturalized U.S. citizen and embassy secretary in Washington D.C., learns she has been elected the new king of a poor coastal fishing village in Ghana. She shares her engaging story in King Peggy: an American Secretary, Her Royal Destiny, and the Inspiring Story of How She Changed an African Village, coauthored with Eleanor Herman.

 

Bartels' improbable journey begins in 2008 with a 4 a.m. wake up call from a tribal elder. The current king of Otuam and Bartels’ uncle "will not be coming back from the village” anytime soon, an African euphemism for "he is dead."

 

Maintaining her American base while fulfilling royal duties a continent away presents an uphill challenge for Bartels, who takes her new role seriously. She frequently seeks spiritual guidance to know how she can make a difference. She finds the village of 7,000 people rife with corruption, discrimination and alcohol abuse, while at the same time lacking basic educational opportunities, clean water and health care. There is also the matter of keeping long dead ancestors happy. Fortunately (but not always) for King Peggy, she has a bevy of relatives ready to lend a hand, if not some comic relief. Her job is a big one.

 

This pithy, fast paced account is narrated in the third person and is rich with African symbolism, rituals, and humorous head scratching situations. Just like traditional Ghanaian kenté cloth (the patterns of which symbolize one's true nature) King Peggy's loyalty to family, feisty determination, and power of forgiveness represent the best efforts of one woman to make a difference one day at a time.

Cynthia

 
 

A Thousand Words

Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little RockA naked Vietnamese girl crying and running, JFK saluting at his father’s funeral, an anguished scream over a prostrate body at Kent State; these iconic photos capture moments which illustrate the turbulence of the mid-twentieth century. Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock by David Margolick explores another seminal photograph taken on September 4, 1957 as black Elizabeth Eckford attempts to enter, and integrate, Little Rock, Arkansas’ heretofore all white Central High. In this instantly recognizable image, petite Elizabeth, dressed in crisp white with a binder clutched to her chest, is followed by fellow student, white Hazel Bryan. Hazel is rigid with anger, mouth open, teeth bared.

 

Elizabeth was part of the Little Rock Nine; she was one of nine black teens carefully chosen to integrate the high school as a result of Brown v. Board of Education.  Margolick relates the backstory of the girls in the picture but he also writes of the women those girls became and the ripple effect of the photograph and events surrounding it on the pair.  As adults, Hazel reaches out to Elizabeth to apologize for her actions memorialized on film and the two woman forge a tentative friendship. Each finds her life forever impacted by the photograph, despite Hazel’s assertion that “life is more than a moment.”

 

Margolick’s writing style allows history and the women’s stories to take center stage in this book. Not surprisingly, Elizabeth’s recollections are particularly poignant; in one, she relates thinking the National Guard had been called out to protect her as she walked to school rather than to barr her entrance as they’d been ordered to do.  Elizabeth and Hazel goes beyond the confines of a picture to bring a personal look at two woman, the civil rights struggle and the fragility of forgiveness and reconciliation. For additional reading in a similar vein, try Norma Watkins’ memoir The Last Resort: Taking the Mississippi Cure.

 

Lori

 
 

Fat Kevin Federline and a Creed Song

You're Not Doing it RightBest known for his absurdist comedy sketch shows, "The State", "Stella", and "Michael and Michael Have Issues", Michael Ian Black is probably the last person anyone would expect to have something to say about what it takes to be a husband and father.  However, in his latest book, You’re Not Doing It Right: Tales of Marriage, Sex, Death, and Other Humiliations, the comedian takes a slight turn from his usual stream of sarcasm and delivers a touching and surprisingly personal memoir about these issues and more.

 

Nearing forty years of age, Michael Ian Black finds himself in constant state of ennui. Spending his days scouring the internet for pictures of fat Kevin Federline (Britney Spears’ notorious ex-husband) just isn’t entertaining him like it used to and he begins to question his own existence. Taking the reader with him, he explores his life up to this point.Beginning with his unusual childhood in New Jersey and continuing through his reminiscences as a married father of two, Black provides us with laughter and tears along the way. Readers who are familiar with Black’s comedy will perhaps be astonished by how frank and touching these confessions are. One of the best examples of this is when recounts a time while driving and thinking about his baby-to-be.  A  laughable song by the band Creed comes on the radio, and he proceeds to break down in sobs.

 

While this title will hold special appeal for first-time parents and newlyweds, You’re Not Doing It Right is a frank and humorous book recommended for anyone who’s survived an existential crisis.

 

Erin

 
 

Gypsy Secrets Revealed

Gypsy Boy: My Life in the Secret World of Romany GypsiesRomani gypsies are an insular people, and little is known of their culture.  They distrust outsiders and prefer to live among, work with, and marry within their own cultural circle. Enter Mikey Walsh (a pseudonym), one of the first brave souls to write a memoir about growing up in a gypsy camp. Gypsy Boy: My Life in the Secret World of the Romany Gypsies gives the reader an inside look at Romani gypsies, who trace their origins to the Indian peninsula and through Eastern Europe. Gypsy men are masculine, tough and charismatic, living by their wits and usually finding work by convincing unsuspecting marks to part with their money. Gypsy women are expected to care for the home and the children and rarely interact with the men. While male gypsies are encouraged to have sexual encounters in the world with non-gypsy women, female gypsies are supposed to remain chaste until early marriage by age eighteen.

 

Revealing gypsy secrets can be a dangerous undertaking, and the author refuses to be photographed in order to preserve his true identity. Walsh grew up in the shadow of his father, a robust bare-knuckle fighting champion who tried to teach young Mikey to fight by knocking him across the room. As he grows older, Walsh realizes that he is gay, something that is so unacceptable to his father that he can only live his life in terror, hoping for some kind of escape.

 

The author reveals a bleak and dysfunctional childhood, but his determination and perseverance eventually pay off.  Although some of the stories are harrowing, the author intersperses some humorous anecdotes involving some very quirky relatives. Walsh manages to find a way out of the gypsy life, get an education and tell the world his story. A companion biography, Gypsy Boy on the Run was published last year in the U.K. Through it all, he remains proud of his gypsy heritage.  Gypsy Boy is a quick read, with a sympathetic and likeable narrator.  Pick it up for a fascinating look into another culture. This title is recommended for those who enjoy hardscrabble memoirs like Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt or Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs. 

 

Doug

 
 

A Shimmering Lady Finds her Way

The Lady in Gold:  The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt’s Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-BauerWhen Adele Bloch-Bauer, a wealthy Jewish salon hostess, sat for her portrait in 1907 by Austria’s most famous painter, Gustav Klimt, it is doubtful that either imagined the painting’s disturbing journey to come.  Washington Post journalist Anne-Marie O’Connor explores these realities in her well-researched book, The Lady in Gold:  The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt’s Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer.

 

This story unfolds in turn of the century Vienna, where affluent Jewish families are lured by the city's sophisticated culture. Artists, led by Klimt, seek more freedom to express their "art of the soul."  They find support for their Secessionist movement from forward thinking patrons, like Adele and her industrialist husband, Ferdinand. When Ferdinand commissions Klimt to paint his wife, the result is a shimmering, gold mosaic of the dazzling, dark haired beauty. 

 

O'Connor frames the story in three sections, spanning more than one hundred years. While it can be challenging to keep track of all the Bloch-Bauer connections, the short chapters keep the narrative moving with poignant vignettes.  Much time is spent on the pillaging of the Viennese Jewish population by Nazi soldiers and theft of their art treasures. Even in post-Nazi Austria, stolen works with questionable provenance remained in Austrian museums. Adele's portrait was renamed The Lady in Gold, losing its Jewish identity. 

 

The author draws upon extensive interviews and correspondence with Adele's niece, Maria Altmann, whose successful legal fight returned the Klimt paintings to private hands, including Klimt's Adele.  While the painting today is at the Neue Galerie in New York, it may be impossible to gaze upon Gustav Klimt's muse without considering the human cost of war, the complexities of art restitution, and each stolen painting's story yet to tell.

Cynthia

 
 

Level Up!

Level Up!

posted by:
April 18, 2012 - 9:31am

The Nerdist WayComedian Chris Hardwick, former host of MTV’s Singled Out and recent contributor to Attack of the Show, Chelsea Lately, and Web Soup, has a message for all geeks, gamers, dorks, and dweebs. You can actually use your nerdy traits to improve your life and find personal fulfillment!

 

Nerdists (a clever pairing of the words “nerd” and “artist”) skillfully combine creativity, focus, and a sense of fun in order to achieve his or her full potential. In this self-help/humor/philosophy title, Hardwick recommends treating your life like a role-playing game (RPG). This means using personal data to quantify, measure, and graph your success as you reach your goals. Gain experience points (XP) by completing tasks like working out three times a week, paying your bills on time, and meeting deadlines.  Watch your character and yourself quickly get to the next level.

 

With chapters on anxiety, time management, fitness, and maintaining your finances, this book is perfect for the self-improving nerd. Hardwick gives plenty of helpful tips, such as ignoring your brain (don’t believe everything you think) and becoming a “Charlie Rose of your own mind” (ask yourself a lot of questions). He recommends taking hints from evil geniuses: have a goal, stay focused, and never back down.

 

Filled with strikingly honest personal examples, hilarious anecdotes, and genuinely positive affirmations, The Nerdist Way is recommended for anyone who has ever let their overly stimulated brain get in the way of living the life they want.

 

 

 

Erin

 
 

Strangers in a Strange Land

Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of ForgetfulnessWhen A Crocodile Eats the SunWhite Woman on the Green Bicycle

The sun eventually did set on the British empire.  The process of its descent makes for some interesting reading in both novels and non-fiction books as authors explore the impact of the withdrawal of British rule on non-native families living abroad.

 

Author Alexandra Fuller’s latest book Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness is an account of her parents’ migration from the British Isles to east Africa and is the story of immigrants adapting to and adopting a new country and adjusting once again as British colonialism yields to self-rule.  Fuller’s mother, especially, has a voice in this book as the family moves throughout east Africa’s farming communities.

 

The same themes of family history intertwined with recent African history are carried out in When a Crocodile Eats the Sun by Peter Godwin.  Godwin, a journalist now living in the United States, was raised in Rhodesia; he and his sister left the country but his parents remained even as Robert Mugabe rose to power and Rhodesia became Zimbabwe.   Godwin’s description of his aged parents’ life under Mugabe’s rule is harrowing but he, as does Fuller, conveys the attachment of his parents to a country  which has become inhospitable and often dangerously hostile to them.

 

Monique Roffey’s novel The White Woman on the Green Bicycle examines the marriage of a white couple, George and Sabine Harwood, living in Trinidad.  The newlywed Harwoods arrive on the island in 1956 as George has been offered a three year employment contract.  Sabine, wilting under the heat and culture shock, can’t wait to return to England but George thrives as an Englishman living in a British colony and refuses to leave.  Broken promises figure in both the Harwood marriage and Trinidad’s move to independence and this Orange prize short-lister blend of fiction and fact is an interesting window into a lesser-known former British colony.

Lori