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.”
Some may remember him from The Carol Burnett Show where he played such absurdly silly characters as Mr. Tudball, while others will recall him as the bumbling Ensign Parker in the TV show McHale’s Navy. Then there are those who have seen his Dorf series of videos. However you remember Tim Conway, his book What’s So Funny? My Hilarious Life will introduce you to aspects of the comic you may have never known.
Conway (born Thomas Conway in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio) loves to tell a funny story, and his book is full of them. Some of the stories involve his eccentric yet lovable family but most are about his life in show business. Being an only child, Conway had a kind of built in audience with his family. He used these early experiences at home, in the classroom, during his brief time in the Army and throughout his extended time at Bowling Green State University to hone his craft and become the comic legend that we know today.
Over the years, Conway has worked with many of the greats in comedy and is quick to give praise to those who helped him achieve success. Some of the celebrities he worked for or with include Ernie Anderson, Steve Allen, Ernest Borgnine and, of course, Carol Burnett. There are sides to Conway that are surprising (for example, being an avid horse racing fan) and some that you might expect (he and Harvey Korman really were great friends), but they all add up to an intriguing and funny memoir. Hopefully, Conway will be around to make us laugh for a long time to come.
Holocaust survivor and author Leo Bretholz passed away Saturday at his home in Pikesville at the age of 93. Bretholz was imprisoned numerous times as he sought to escape Nazi-occupied Europe for seven years. Bretholz escaped seven times during his harrowing ordeal, including a 1942 jump from a train headed for Auschwitz.
Bretholz immigrated to the United States in 1947, eventually settling in Baltimore. Upon receipt of the death notifications of his mother and sisters in 1962, Bretholz began publicly sharing his story. In 1998, his gripping memoir of his experiences during this time, Leap into Darkness, was published and remains a riveting documentary of survival. Until his death, Bretholz remained dedicated to ensuring that new generations of school children were aware of his story and the history of the Holocaust and was tireless in his work as an advocate.
Historian Jill Lepore eloquently pieces together the sparse writings of a little-known 18th-century American woman who also happens to be the favorite sister of Benjamin Franklin. In her meticulously researched work Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, the Harvard University professor reveals a humble woman whose station does not dampen her upbeat and quick-witted spirit. The siblings emerge as two restless spirits, connected through their love of writing yet separated by their assumed roles of the time.
Born in 1712 in a two-story wooden house on Union Street in Boston, the youngest child of Josiah and Abiah Franklin was expected to learn to read but not necessarily how to write. Her mother taught her, as did Benjamin, who was six years older. Married at 15, Jane Franklin Mecom's endless days of cleaning, washing and mothering were in contrast to her glamorous brother's life. She cherished letters from her brother. Their lifelong correspondence reveals a keen, opinionated woman who is a shrewd political observer and a lover of books. With 12 children, she came up with her own way of chronicling births and deaths by creating her own slim book called the "Book of Ages." The book became a remembrance and her story. It survives, while most of her letters to her brother do not.
Lepore, a National Book Award finalist and staff writer for The New Yorker, is passionate about her subject even when evidence is scarce. She explores the political, social and commercial sides of the times in compelling character-driven prose. And while she freely draws the parallel life of the siblings, it is the juxtaposition of men’s and women's roles in Colonial America that reminds readers of the extraordinary fortitude of women like Jane. With 148 pages of notes, source material, reproduced documents and time period detail and spellings, the narrative unfolds slowly. Readers of early American or women's history are rewarded with a fresh look at one of this country's most influential, iconic leaders and the sister in his reflection.
In April 1940, John Henry Montagu Manners, the ninth Duke of Rutland, spent his final days working in the small rooms in the servants’ quarters of Belvoir Castle, where his family’s archives were housed. Although he spent most of his life carefully preserving his family’s history, the duke spent the end of his life expunging the family records of three specific time periods from his life. After his death, the duke’s son and heir, Charles, ordered the archive rooms sealed. The rooms and their contents remained untouched until they were reopened in 1999. Historian Catherine Bailey brings this story to light in her captivating new book The Secret Rooms: A True Story of a Haunted Castle, a Plotting Duchess and a Family Secret.
While Bailey was researching a book on World War I, she came across some curious gaps in the family’s archives and began to question what was missing. Why would someone have removed those specific sections from the family’s otherwise meticulous records? She worked steadfastly, researching and piecing together the scandalous family secrets that John Manners worked so hard to hide. In this case, the truth sounds like the plot of an epic BBC miniseries, and the answers she finds are more dramatic than most fiction. The Secret Rooms is part Downton Abbey, part Gothic mystery and entirely irresistible. This story is narrative nonfiction at its best.
In Last of the Blue and Gray: Old Men, Stolen Glory and the Mystery that Outlived the Civil War, Richard Serrano tells the story of the last two survivors of the Civil War. It’s the 1950s and both men are in their 100s, still holding on to life and their past glory. One is a former drummer boy for the Union now living in Duluth, Minnesota and the other lives in Texas, having served with General Hood’s Brigade fighting for the South. They’ve both been alive for various Civil War reunions and each hopes to make it to the upcoming Centennial Celebration set to begin in 1961. However, one of them never served for the United States in any conflict and was a mere boy of 5 years old when the Civil War began. Which one really deserves the accolades, including a federal pension, and which is an imposter?
Serrano’s book is full of details about these men and others who claimed to be former Civil War veterans. What is compelling about this narrative is that many records from the Civil War, particularly those of the South, were lost or destroyed over the years. Some men even served and were discharged without official papers. With painstaking research into the records and archives that do remain, including the 1860 U.S. Census, Serrano is able to write an accurate story of the various frauds who tried to claim the glory that was never due to them.
As Serrano posits, the reasons for their deceptions included poverty (many new pension claims from Civil War vets occurred during the Great Depression), a need for fame and an inability to distinguish fact from fiction. Some of these men had been telling their stories for so long that they began to believe they were true. Serrano points out that even the most well-intentioned fraud detracts from the countless number of men who served during the Civil War and never got their due.
The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Donald Yacovone is a fascinating companion book to the recent documentary series of the same name. Like the series, the book begins with the story of Juan Garrido, the first known African-born person to arrive in what is now the United States in 1513. The narrative carries through to the present, covering 500 years of African-American history. The book, which is organized in nine chapters that mark distinct periods in the African-American story, brings greater depth to the stories presented in the documentary. In both, Gates highlights the diversity and the resilience of African-Americans by sharing the stories of individuals whose experiences shed light on their time and place in this complex history.
This documentary series is a lifelong dream that Gates was finally able to bring to fruition. He explains,“Since my senior year in high school, when I watched Bill Cosby narrate a documentary about black history, I’ve longed to share those stories in great detail to the broadest audience possible, young and old, black and white, scholars and the general public. I believe that my colleagues and I have achieved this goal through The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross.” The critics agree that it is a success. Both the series and book have been nominated for NAACP Image Awards.
The six-part miniseries, which aired on PBS last fall, was recently released on DVD. This touching and inspiring video clip gives viewers a taste of the storytelling found in this riveting look into 500 years of history.
Bestselling novelist Gary Shteyngart is a really funny guy. He is a master of social satire and self-deprecating humor, reminiscent of Woody Allen or Phillip Roth. In Little Failure: A Memoir, Shteyngart turns to his own life and skewers himself, his family and two countries with a razor sharp wit.
Shteyngart (What kind of name is that? Keep reading, he’ll tell you, and good luck not laughing out loud when he does.) was born in the former Soviet Union. The only child of Jewish parents who affectionately called their asthmatic son Soplyak, meaning “snotty,” or Failurchka, which needs no translation, the family immigrated to the United States when Shteyngart was 6. Life for poor Russian Jews was not easy under the Communists, but America is fraught with opportunities for humiliation too.
Reading Little Failure is, at times, like listening to a clever borscht belt comedian: badda bing, badda boom, with a zinger in every paragraph. Whether comparing his after-school time at Grandma Polya’s house in America to “being fed like some pre-foie-gras goose,” describing Black Sea vacations Soviet-style or recounting his time as an Oberlin College student, Shteyngart has an eye for the absurd. With his deft blend of humor and pathos, he can relate family history under Stalin and the complex relationship with his father or his family’s glee upon receiving a pseudo-check from Publisher’s Clearinghouse with equal panache. On the The New York Times best sellers list, Little Failure will appeal to readers with an intelligent funny bone.
How did it happen? How did humans, in about 30 years, entirely kill off a bird species that once numbered in the millions, if not billions? In A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction, researcher Joel Greenberg covers the incredibly fast decline and disappearance of this iconic bird. One of the best-known examples of the end of a species, Greenberg delves deep into the various theories and causes of its extinction.
The mass slaughter of these birds in the years 1850-1880 has been well-documented, and Greenberg describes in great detail the methods (nets, guns, traps, etc.) that were used to capture or kill them. Due to the pigeons’ tendency to flock in the thousands or more, they made for easy targets no matter what method used. While the pigeons were initially found in large numbers from the Eastern seaboard west to the Rockies, their last huge flocks were found mostly in the area of the Great Lakes. Greenberg posits that the pigeons could live only as members of these large flocks; without the protection and community that this provided the birds, they were unable to survive.
After the decades of the late 1800s, only a few were found here and there over their once large range. Finally, in 1914, the last of the Passenger Pigeons, Martha, died at the Cincinnati Zoo. Greenberg’s book is an elegy marking the centennial of her death and that of her entire species. The national conservation movement, spearheaded by Teddy Roosevelt, John Muir and others, came too late to save the Passenger Pigeon, but changed the mentality of the limits of human encroachment on nature. Though even with the scholarship and understanding that Greenberg and others have provided, we are left asking ourselves: how did it happen?
Ever wonder what happens to your old cell phone when you e-cycle it? What about the everyday recycling that is put out on the curbs? Oddly enough, these items will likely make their way to China or other developing countries, where there are growing manufacturing bases and therefore large demands for recycled materials. In his first book, Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade, journalist Adam Minter expounds on the convoluted routes of recycling, with particular focus on the history of the American scrap metal trade. Although these topics may not seem palatable for reading material, Minter creates a fascinating and readable narrative about individuals who have made it their business to see worth in what others discard, and the processes which have been created to recycle materials.
Statistics in Junkyard Planet are mind-boggling. Companies in one town in China, for example, recycle approximately 20 million pounds of American Christmas tree lights annually. In 2007 alone, U.S.-based Huron Valley Steel recycled over one billion pounds of shredded car parts, material that 50 or 60 years ago would have ended up in a landfill. Further, Minter goes behind the scenes and introduces us to many individuals, here and overseas, who have made a living in the recycling and scrap trades. It’s a profession with job security and very little worker turnover, where those who have dedicated their lives to the business take great pride in the work they do.
For those truly concerned about the health of the planet, however, Minter encourages people to reduce the amount of products they buy. As he puts it: “Recycling isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card for consumption,” as the business of recycling is profit-driven, not motivated by environmental concern. Minter has personal knowledge of this topic as he grew up in a family of multi-generational scrap dealers. Anyone interested in environmentalism or economics will find Junkyard Planet an intriguing read. The photographs alone are worth a look!