Find Me Unafraid

posted by: November 19, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for Find Me UnafraidI have long been fascinated by the story of Jessica Posner and Kennedy Odede. I was excited when I saw Find Me Unafraid: Love, Loss, and Hope in an Africa Slum on my desk as I would finally get to hear the whole story of how they came to be by their own accounts. Previously, I have only heard snippets of their lives and what they have accomplished in Nairobi, Kenya and, more specifically, the African slum of Kibera where Kennedy grew up.


Kennedy Odede had a difficult life. He was born to a teen mother, homeless at one point and grew up in the worst slum in Kenya. Most would not, and never do, come out of this same situation alive let alone with a college degree and a non-profit organization, Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO), to help the girls of Kibera. Jessica Posner was a junior at Wesleyan University when she decided she wanted to study abroad for a semester and chose Nairobi. She heard about Kennedy and SHOFCO through two of her friends and decided to contact him about doing a theater project for his organization.


Their story is told in alternating chapters, a ‘he said, she said’ of how they met, fell in love and have helped and continue to help the girls of Kibera. The dream of creating the Kibera School for Girls became a reality through a grant, and in six harried weeks, it was built and continues to thrive. This story, their story, is only the beginning of what they have yet to accomplish.


The Quiet Man

posted by: August 20, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Quiet Man by John SununuJohn Sununu, former Chief of Staff in the first Bush Administration, offers an inside portrait of the one-term presidency in The Quiet Man: The Indispensable Presidency of George H. W. Bush. The 41st president is most remembered for the First Gulf War, fought to liberate Kuwait after it was invaded by Iraq. It was one of the largest and most successful military campaigns in history. However, we seldom consider Bush’s domestic accomplishments in the face of an overwhelming opposition majority.


Sununu argues that Bush was also an effective engineer of domestic legislation. His legislative accomplishments included bolstering civil rights, creating the Americans with Disabilities Act and passing comprehensive clean air and water protections after they languished for 12 years in Congress. He identified the savings and loan crisis as a major threat to a healthy economy, overhauling the banking system and paving the way for the strong economic recovery of the 1990s.


With rare exceptions, don’t look for honest criticism in this work. It is clearly both a vigorous defense of the first Bush Administration and a homage to the man who held the office. It's still a fascinating behind-the-scenes view of the inner workings of the White House as it negotiates the tumultuous events at the end of the 20th century. We have a front-row seat to diplomatic machinations both domestic and foreign. Sununu observes that the consequences of 41’s presidency reverberate today like the "Thousand Points of Light" he lit across the nation.


Agree or disagree with his policies, this President Bush is aptly quoted, “I am a quiet man. But I hear the quiet people others don’t.”


Cover art for Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black PressEye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press by James McGrath Morris is the biography of a groundbreaking reporter who covered seminal events of the civil rights movement. Morris, a former journalist himself, writes about Payne’s work in journalism which forged a new path, as a woman and as an African American.   


Ethel Payne, born in 1911, was raised in Chicago’s West Englewood area—one of the few enclaves in Chicago which permitted  African-Americans to live outside the racially segregated “Black Belt” neighborhoods. By 30 years old, this granddaughter of slaves was reporting for one of the nation’s preeminent African American newspapers, the Chicago Defender. Her trajectory continued as Ms. Payne reported on civil rights issues domestically and abroad. She investigated the state of black soldiers stationed in Japan and interviewed Vietnam’s General Westmoreland about the treatment of black troops fighting in the war. As a member of the White House Press Corps, she won accolades from Clarence Mitchell after she questioned the Eisenhower administration about discriminatory practices. Payne was present for the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, rubbed elbows with presidents (even entertaining Richard and Patricia Nixon in her home), met with foreign leaders and traveled with Winston Churchill in Africa. Her efforts to end apartheid allowed her a private audience with Nelson and Winnie Mandela. Eye on the Struggle chronicles Payne’s illustrious career, made all the more remarkable by Payne’s unswerving approach of recording events both important to and from the perspective of black Americans. 


Girl in the Dark

posted by: May 13, 2015 - 7:00am

Girl in the Dark by Anna LyndseyIt's one thing to be able to describe a debilitating chronic illness; it's another to do so in language so contemplative that the words seem to hover over the page for their raw honesty. Anna Lyndsey (pseudonym) has written her illness-inspired memoir Girl in the Dark about living with a rare light sensitivity so severe it plunges her into a self-imposed darkness. "How do you write about having to live entirely in the dark?" she asks. Lyndsey does it by sectioning her narrative thoughtfully, giving readers a brief cast into her physical and emotional daily, personal life that is as candid as it is hopeful and full of love.


To say Lyndsey's illness has isolated her would be an understatement. The former British civil servant was fine until one day about 10 years ago she realized she could no longer tolerate light. It starts with the computer screen, which makes her face burn like “someone is holding a flamethrower to my head.” Eventually, her whole body is affected until she is left with no choice but to make her footprint smaller, something easier said than done. She refers to her bedroom as her lair. “I slipped between the walls of my dark room with nothing but relief,” she says. Life is a constant adjustment. Doctors can’t help, nor can her supportive mother and brother. Her rock is her companion-turned-husband Pete who never wavers, bringing her talking books and melding into the new normal.


Lyndsey’s story is not so much about the unusualness of her illness as it is about living as humanely as possible with it. Eschewing strict chronological order, Lyndsey instead delivers up short, poetic essays on various subjects. For readers drawn to the fragility of the human condition, Lyndsey’s remarkable storytelling becomes a fertile ground for resiliency when the impossible becomes possible.


Audrey and Bill

posted by: May 7, 2015 - 7:00am

Audrey and Bill by Edward EpsteinThe Golden Age of Hollywood introduced us to luminary icons of the 20th century whose influence radiates to this day; perhaps none more than Audrey Hepburn. Edward Epstein’s new biography Audrey and Bill focuses on Hepburn’s brief affair with the “Golden Boy” of Hollywood, William “Bill” Holden.

Unlike today when we are inundated with facts about celebrities every time we turn on our TV’s, computers or phones, the publicists of the 1950s worked overtime to insure the personal lives of the studio’s stars did not invade the public consciousness. And while Audrey and Bill’s whirlwind romance that blossomed when they met on the set of the Billy Wilder classic Sabrina was well-known in Hollywood circles, it was kept largely out of the public eye.


Epstein sheds light on the fact that their affair, though brief, shaped many of both Audrey and Bill’s relationships and marriages moving forward in their lives. Both actors, however, never really turned out to be very happy in love despite their tremendous professional successes.


There’s plenty more gossip about some of the biggest names of the 20th century in this book that will not disappoint the curious: Humphrey Bogart hated both of his costars! Nancy Reagan tattled to Bill’s wife about his numerous affairs! Bill dated Grace Kelly! Audrey sang to JFK on his last birthday to take away from the intense scrutiny from the Marilyn Monroe version the year before!


At times, the book reads like two separate biographies, following each actor through their career missteps and triumphs, through other relationships, children and illnesses. Holden’s death in 1980 due to liver disease and Hepburn’s death in 1993 due to cancer are also chronicled.


Perfect beach reading for those who are fans of either star, or just interested in the Hollywood glamour of a bygone era, will find this story of Audrey and Bill a compelling look into the romantic lives of two of Hollywood’s greatest stars.



I Must Say

posted by: April 30, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for I Must SayMartin Short is a comedic icon known for his zany characters and frenetic humor. Whether he's portraying the unctuous Jiminy Glick or the lovable loser Ed Grimley, Short’s genius lies in his ability to find the absurdity in life. In his biography, I Must Say: My Life As a Humble Comedy Legend, Short candidly shares stories about his private and public life which help to explain how he evolved into a comedy legend.


Short was born and raised in Canada, the youngest of five children in an Irish Catholic family where humor was a major part of life. Two things Short enjoys doing are relating humorous stories and dropping names. For instance, Short, Steve Martin and Tom Hanks hold a bi-annual male bonding ritual of sorts. They gather together on the evening before their perspective colonoscopies to play poker while cleansing their lower GI tracts. This odd ritual, which Short has dubbed “Colonoscopy Eve,” helps the men to endure a rather unpleasant ordeal, and the next day they are “toasting our good colorectal health over margaritas.”


Besides this one story, the book is not scatological in nature, but an homage to Short’s friends, colleagues and family. Actually, considering the list of celebrities that he either knows or is friends with — including Martin, Hanks, Eugene Levy and David Letterman, to name a few — this book reads more like a who’s who of comedy legends. A few of his stories are poignant, but he never gets maudlin even when faced with some of life’s greatest challenges.


Whether you are a Martin Short fan or not, I Must Say will give you insights into a world that is pretty much like anyone’s life. There are ups and downs and plenty of laughter, but the big takeaway from Short’s biography is that celebrities are human, too. They just have a lot more money.


Thinking Out Loud

posted by: March 30, 2015 - 7:00am

The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion by Meghan DaumMeghan Daum's new essay collection The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion starts off with an emotional stab. In her opening essay, Daum speaks about her complicated relationship with her mother and her ho-hum reaction to her death. "I was as relieved as I planned to be," she says, when her mother finally stops breathing. It’s this honesty that you should expect from Daum as she explores a hodgepodge of subjects from her flawed family to her obsession with Joni Mitchell. The L.A. Times columnist and author of three previous books, ruminates on what makes her tick, even when it is far from flattering.


Daum isn't afraid to say what many might feel but would never utter aloud. Her 10 essays range from light and insignificant to a catharsis for the 40-something as she traverses life's weightier decisions. She's at her best early on with her character-driven portrait of her mother whose behavior her daughter could not abide.


Intelligent and candid, Daum exudes an unapologetic tone as she grapples with creeping midlife and what to make of it. There are moments of eloquent internal clarity that reach across the page. Her thought-provoking essay "Difference Maker," about her experience mentoring in the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program, delves into the underbelly of foster care. It's an observant gem that does not pretend to have the answers. That's what rises to the top of Daum’s latest effort. For all the self-analysis and "unspeakable thoughts many of us harbor," life is still often about the intangibles.


Brother Against Brother

posted by: March 18, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Man Who Would Not Be WashingtonCover art for Marching HomeOne of the great paradoxes of history is Robert E. Lee’s decision to fight for the Confederacy rather than defend the Union. Jonathan Horn explores the great battle Lee fought within himself in The Man Who Would Not Be Washington.


Robert E. Lee was the son of a renowned Revolutionary General, the son-in-law of Washington’s adopted child and the keeper of the flame of Washington’s legacy. He graduated second in his class at West Point, fought for his country during the Mexican-American War, and was considered the natural choice to command the Union Army. Despite a lifetime defending the Constitution against all enemies, he could not bear arms against his neighbors. Horn’s extensive research follows Lee through his personal and professional life, illuminating the deep ties of family, affection and history that bound the Washington and Lee families. It is this one, fateful decision that has shaped our perception of Washington and created the American story.


Our nation’s story is not simply about the generals, but also the private soldiers. In Marching Home: The Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War, Brian Jordan shatters the legend of the constantly faithful, overly sentimental soldier who attends reunions and speaks fondly of brothers-in-arms. Rather, the soldiers were tormented by wounds and memories. A new fight began after the war — the fight for dignity, fair compensation and recognition of their accomplishments. Determined to put the war behind them, civilians were unprepared for the return of shell-shocked veterans and unwilling to deal with their needs. Using pension records, diaries, letters and regimental histories, Brian Matthew Jordan has brought into stark relief the needs of veterans and the vast gulf between the home front and the battlefront.


Two great reads for Civil War devotees — from one Civil War nut to another!


Confronting Your Bullies

posted by: February 18, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for Whipping Boy"Eat it, Nosey," he said again. "Only this time make sure you chew."


Allen Kurzweil is 10 years old, and his roommate at an elite Swiss boarding school is forcing him to eat bread soaked in hot sauce until tears are streaming down his face and then some. This incident, along with several others at the hand of Cesar Augustus Viana, causes Allen to leave the boarding school that summer after his first year. While the view of the Alps may be far behind him, the memory of Cesar, his tormentor, never dies.


Whipping Boy: The Forty-Year Search for My Twelve-Year-Old Bully documents the adult Kurzweil’s journey to track down Cesar and confront him at last. His quest takes him back to Switzerland to look for the ghost of his past in old dormitories, to an ill-fated beauty school in Manila, through New York City law firms and to a Californian federal prison. As he unearths more of Cesar’s movements and where he might be now, Kurzweil finds himself under the weight of tons of documents convicting Cesar in a bizarre international, multi-million dollar bank fraud case.


Will Allen follow through on his promise to punch Cesar right in the nose if and when at last they meet? Will all of his meticulous research and a lifetime of reliving the horrors at the hands of Cesar be in vain? More importantly, has Allen’s obsession with bringing Cesar to justice and righting past wrongs turned him into what he has feared: Has he become the bully?


Kurzweil’s obsession for all things related to Cesar’s life make this a fascinating read. Biography and memoir fans looking for something a little unconventional will be happy with the level of detail and the thoroughness of the research.




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