Monthly Archives: March 2011
For those (like me) who only know Evelyn Nesbit as a character in E.L. Doctorow’s brilliant novel “Ragtime” (or the wonderful musical based off it) I encourage you to get this book in your hands right now.
For those who have no idea who Evelyn Nesbit was, but like their American history/biographies seedy, sexy, and twisted, this is also a book for you.
In 1900, Evelyn Nesbit was sixteen. She was also considered the most beautiful woman in America. Photographed and painted by artists and photographers, and causing a stir in roles in shows, Evelyn was the original “It” girl.
Behind the gorgeous face was a young woman with issues. After her father’s death, her mother had a hard time supporting Evelyn and her younger brother. So, when Evelyn started making money as a model, it seemed the answer to a prayer. Little did the family know the circles that young Evelyn would soon be running in. Lusted after by millionaires and caught up in their perversions, this was a young woman who had to grow up incredibly fast.
After a twisted relationship with architect Stanford White, Evelyn wound up marrying a millionaire named Harry Thaw – unaware of the skeletons in Harry’s own closet. (Namely, a tendency to lure young boys and girls to his place, only to flog them.) Driven insane by jealousy of Stanford’s having taken Evelyn’s virginity and “ruining her,” Thaw wound up shooting White in a theater full of people, thereby committing what was then known as “The Crime of the Century” and launching a trial to rival the O.J. Simpson trial.
Victorian society had it’s weird fascinations with youth and sex, and “American Eve” illuminates that while at the same time never crossing the line into truly creepy. Uruburu clearly knows her subjects incredibly well, and shares the story in great detail and with great relish. Evelyn, her mother, White, Thaw, and all the other characters mentioned are fascinating, and it’s literally a book you won’t be able to put down.
What a read! Wow!
Ayn Rand dedicated “Atlas Shrugged” to both her husband AND her lover.
Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” was considered so blasphemous that the author had to go into hiding to avoid people seeking the reward laid down for killing him? (And that the person who translated the book into Japanese was stabbed to death over the book?)
Amy Tan dated a drug dealer who had escaped from a German mental hospital?
Eugene O’Neill stopped speaking to his daughter Oona after she married a notorious womanizer – named Charlie Chaplin.
Authors are fascinating. Sometimes, moreso than the works they produce. Marlene Wagman-Gellar’s “Once Again to Zelda” compiles the stories behind the dedications to fifty famous novels into one neat and adorable little book. From Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” to Dan Brown’s “The DaVinci Code,” the entire history of modern literature is covered. The friendship between Harper Lee and Truman Capote, the tragic romance of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda, and the story of the men that inspired Margaret Mitchell to create Rhett Butler – all of these stories, and more, are included in this remarkable little volume.
If, like me, you’re fascinated by the people who create the stories that live for generations and decades, this book is for you. (Also, it’s a great bedside read, since the chapters are short – around 5 pages each.)
It’s hard not to visit the gorgeous place and not become enraptured not only by it’s spectacular beauty (it really does look like a postcard) but also it’s fascinating history. Well, at least for my husband and I – history nerds – it wasn’t. There were certainly tons of bikini-clad tourists around who were there only for the sun and shopping and didn’t care to learn a thing about history.
That’s not how I roll.
So it pleased me immensely when I heard that Sarah Vowell’s next book was about the annexation of Hawaii. In previous books, Robert Louis Stevenson and Mark Twain have attempted to write about this most unsettled of lands – and the results are fine, if incredibly dated. Vowell is one of those writers whose books I will buy the day they’re released, and to wrap all her genius and smarts and modern sensibilities into a topic I’m fascinated by seemed like pure perfection.
“Unfamiliar Fishes” is really, really good. I knew I was going to love it when the opening line contains a reference to “plate lunch,” which is a remarkable Hawaiian THING that you have to eat to understand. (Chicago-ites, you should try Aloha Eats on Clark for the only real Hawaiian plate lunch in town.) From there, Ms. Vowell launches into the history of how Hawaii, once a kingdom all it’s own with a monarchy, got visited by missionaries, had some revolutions, and eventually became part of the United States of America.
As always, Vowell comes off as your really smart, funny, and interesting friend explaining history to you. She travels to Hawaii in addition to several other places, and for those who’ve read some of her other books brings her young nephew Owen with her to provide his adorable (and normally spot-on) commentary along the way.
Reading “Unfamiliar Fishes” reminded me of my favorite parts of my vacation there – namely, visiting the I’olani Palace where Queen Liliuokalani lived (and was held in a room for eight months) and the overwhelming sense of history and broken ties.
(Note: One of my favorite historical figures, Liliuokalani was also a noted songwriter. In fact, in 2009 when Barack Obama – the first Hawaiian born President of the United States – was inaugurated, it was the Queen’s song “Aloha O’ie” that was played. Seems crazy that it was a previous US president who essentially overthrew her reign and toppled her kingdom, doesn’t it?)
The history of Hawaii isn’t always as beautiful as the land, but it’s just as captivating.
There’s a fine line between genius and madness, and it appears there’s a fine line between journalism and memoir. In Stefan Fatsis’ “Word Freak,” we not only get an in-depth look at the history of one of America’s favorite board games, but we also get to watch the subculture of people who play it professionally as they make their way from tournament to tournament, always chasing the perfect game.
It’s about Scrabble. Everyone knows Scrabble, right? The game with the letter tiles and you make words on the board with all the squares? (If you don’t know Scrabble, I worry for you. Really.)
Fatsis, a journalist, went from novice player to fairly high-ranked competitive player while writing this book. More than just a history, it’s also a memoir of a man who grows more and more consumed by a game. He obsesses over anagrams and pulls all-nighters memorizing lists of acceptable words. About 3/4 of the book is Fatsis’ story of his journey into the obsessive world of Scrabble die-hards. Along the way, we meet a cast of misfits not unlike the cast of many documentaries about such subcultures as role-playing camp or spelling bee competitors. They’re focused, they’re awkward, and they’re fascinating.
The other quarter of the book teaches more about the history of Scrabble than I ever expected I would be interested to know – from it’s humble beginnings as a game developed by an out-of-work man during the depression to an American (and world-wide) classic. For example, did you know that Scrabble’s inventor only pocketed about a million dollars over the course of his lifetime for his invention? Seems like a rip-off for a game that’s remained popular for over 70 years in most countries around the world.
Fatsis writes in a lively fashion, even in his moments of geeking-out. He dissects a few games word-by-word, but fortunately doesn’t feel the need to do the same for every game he plays. (There are plenty of books out there about how to play Scrabble like a pro, if you’re interested.) The contentious relationship between the Scrabble die-hards and the people at Hasbro who own the game is also fascinating. While Hasbro recognizes it owns something bigger than a game, and honestly appears to treasure Scrabble, the die-hards seem to envision a world where competitive Scrabble gets played on television and can’t understand why the whole world doesn’t feel the same way.
As one who enjoys a casual game of Scrabble, and has two versions (travel and regular) of the game in my collection, this was a good read. It made me want to play, and I would imagine that was the point.
Nigerian author Chinua Achebe wrote “Things Fall Apart” in 1958. From there, the book became arguably the most famous African novel ever written. Studied widely in schools, it frequently makes Top 100 lists and is revered for many reasons.
In a village in Nigeria called Umuofia, people live by established rules and are happy. A local man named Okonkwo is a leader of the village and a renowned wrestler. After a boy from another village is given to his family to raise, and meets a violent death at Okonkwo’s hand, things seem to change for the local hero. “Things Fall Apart” covers years in his life as he presides over his family, watches his children grow, deals with missionaries trying to take over the village and convert the people, and eventually breaks a law of the land and winds up banished for years.
With a tragic and surprising ending, and characters easy to care about (including Okonkwo’s wives) it’s easy to understand why the book has had the impact it’s had. The book is an interesting look at a specific society, almost an anthropological study, while at the same time shining light on things that every society has in common – customs, family, religions, rules, food.
“Things Fall Apart” is definitely a book I’d recommend to people who want to read literature of other cultures. Sometimes it’s good to step outside books you know you’ll like and step into worlds you don’t know anything about.
“Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank” by Randi Hutter Epstein, M.D.
As a book-nerd, when I got pregnant, I immediately started looking around for books to get me through this life-changing and awesomely crazy time. Though I easily found the best of the best how-to books (“What to Expect when You’re Expecting,” of course, as well as Jenny McCarthy’s “Belly Laughs”) I also wanted some history on this whole process. I wished my beloved Mary Roach would have tackled the subject of childbirth through history in her wonderfully scientifically weird way.
Well, Mary Roach hasn’t taken on babies yet – but she doesn’t need to.
Randi Hutter Epstein, M.D.’s “Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank” is the book about babies I wanted Mary Roach to write. I stumbled upon it while browing the racks at the awesome Women & Children First bookstore in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood, and I’m so glad I did.
Did you know that, for years, women were coming down with (and often dying from) something called “childbed fever” after delivering their babies? One smart doctor thought it might have something to do with a lack of cleanliness from the doctors, who would frequently deal with sick or dead people, then head right into delivering a baby. This doctor instituted a rigorous hand-washing program and childbed fever deaths plummeted. Of course, then the staff got bored of the hand-washing, went back to their previous ways, and back up the deaths went.
Let’s put it this way – I’m now really glad I live in the time I do. Having a baby in past centuries sounds like it was frequently a god-awful and deadly experience.
From the horror of DES hormones to the silliness of ancient times when a piece of the amniotic sac left on the baby during delivery was considered a sign that the baby would accomplish great things, “Get Me Out..” is a treat for history nerds, mamas and mamas-to-be, and anyone who’s ever been curious about the incredibly mysterious 9 months it takes to grow and deliver a baby. Also, it manages to remain humorous – despite a lot of subject matter that’s really anything BUT funny. Hearing of one old-time doctor who did horrible experiments on slave girls to learn about female anatomy is downright awful, but hearing there are statues of him in parks is even worse.
Informative AND interesting? I’m there.
What’s truly chilling about Mira Bartok’s memoir “The Memory Palace” isn’t all the abuse and violence Mira faces due to her mother’s schizophrenia, but rather the fact that – untreated – her mother goes to live on the streets.
As someone who lives in the big city of Chicago, I see homeless people each and every day on the street, bus, and train. It’s a heart-stopping thought to think that some of these people are estranged mothers, fathers, daughters, and sons, lost to the world because of their illness.
Yeah. “The Memory Palace” is far from a happy book.
Mira and her sister grew up with a single mother who lost her mind to schizophrenia. For years, the children dealt with their mothers attacks, paranoia, and oddities, until it all grew too intense to handle anymore. As the years went by, it all got much worse. After their grandmother (who had been handling their mother) was diagnosed with Alzheimers, their mother stabbed their grandmother and the girls – now adults – grew fearful. So, they shut themselves off from their mother, changed their names, and basically hid.
Seventeen years later, their mother has cancer and the trio are reunited again. Things are remembered, truths are unearthed, and it’s a rather steep climb for a lesson in self-discovery. Nothing about this book is easy or pleasant, and none of the life-changing choices are made carelessly. No one wants to leave behind a helpless parent or family member, but sometimes it’s the only way to help yourself.
A searing portrait of mental illness and the affects it has on those living around it, “The Memory Palace” is a masterpiece of memoir. Bartok, an artist by trade, uses words like paints and vividly shows the reader what her hellish life was like. (In addition to a crazy mother, she also has a grandfather who could be considered abusive and part of her own memory erased by a car accident.) By sharing her mother’s journal entries along with her own words, she helps illuminate the things that bind mother and daughter together, even while driving them worlds apart. While not a delight to read, it’s certainly a book I’d suggest to those who truly believe in the power of the written word to educate and enlighten people.
To all the readers who have always felt that Mary and Kitty Bennet didn’t get nearly enough to do in Jane Austen’s classic novel “Pride and Prejudice” — You need to read “Pride & Prejudice & Zombies: Dreadfully Ever After.” Like, NOW.
Seth Grahame-Smith’s mash-up novel, “Pride & Prejudice & Zombies” was a sensation. As it launched a trend of monster stories mixed with classic fiction, it remained the best, most entertaining, and best written example of the genre.
Having read a great deal of this genre, I feel qualified to say loud and proud that the people at Quirk Books are the best at producing this kind of book. Mash-up is a special type of beast, and just because it’s a good concept doesn’t mean it’ll actually work out on paper. (“Little Women and Warewolves” is a perfect example of ones that didn’t pull it off, while Quirk’s “Android Karenina” is among the best.)
It was with incredible joy that I received my advance copy of Quirk’s latest installment in the “P & P & Z” trilogy (which also contains the prequel, “Dawn of the Dreadfuls.”) The series, which recasts the lovely Bennett sisters as five highly-trained zombie-battling swords-women taking down England’s zombie outbreak, is charming, funny, and actually one of the best tributes to Jane Austen ever written.
Usually, when I see sequels to Austen novels, I groan. (“Mr. Darcy Takes A Wife?” Zzzzzz.)
However, I gave this one a shot. I mean, it has zombies.
Steve Hockensmith’s “Pride & Prejudice & Zombies: Dreadfully Ever After” is one of the most tremendously entertaining books I’ve come across in a long time. As a fan of Jane Austen, I’ve always felt there were certain characters (like the previously mentioned Kitty and Mary) who didn’t get enough play in the original novel – and this book lets them shine. Though the story centers around Mr. Darcy’s having been bitten by a dreadful (what zombies are called in this parallel regency world) and lingering in limbo between staying human and becoming a full-fledged dreadful himself, it’s hardly the least interesting plot. Elizabeth, aided by her sister Kitty and her father, has to obey the always-scheming Lady Catherine to obtain a potential cure for the zombie disease in order to save Darcy before it’s too late. Along the way, they face ninjas, a creepy hospital, a young dandy with a rabbit, and several familiar faces in new settings. Will they get the cure to Darcy in time? Is Lady Catherine on their side after all? Will Darcy be tricked into thinking Elizabeth has abandoned him in his time of need?
Elizabeth, of course, is the main character. That said, the book belongs to her two sisters – two characters who’ve often been overlooked by Austen’s readers. Here, Kitty and Mary are highly trained, dedicated warriors on their respective quests for the truth. Kitty (who’s always felt herself boring) puts on silly airs to win over the heart of a young man who might prove useful to them, all the while falling for someone who society would never accept her having a relationship with. For her part, Mary is headstrong and heads off into the darker side of London’s underworld.
Also! Anne de Bourgh (another character too quickly overlooked in the original novel) gets a full fleshing-out here, and becomes a strangely fascinating character – and not nearly as obvious of a bad guy as she was the first time around.
The above is all I can say without giving something away. Full of twists and turns and things you don’t expect, this is a really great read.
Like it’s clever predecessor, I loved this book – a lot. If this is the end of the zombie-fighting Bennett sisters, congratulations to Steve Hockensmith for letting them go out with a bang.
If you’re one of THOSE people who doesn’t believe that graphic novels or comics count as literature/valuable reading – By the power of Greyskull, get the heck out of here!
(Yes I did kick off with a He-Man reference. You’re welcome.)
Last year, I joined my husband (then merely my fiancee) at the first ever Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo – C2E2, for short. We had a great time wandering the booths and attending panels and came home loaded with graphic novels to enhance our already bursting bookcases.
So, when C2E2 2011 was announced, we bought Saturday day passes and made plans to head down to McCormick Place for the convention. Well, a lot can happen over the course of a year. C2E2 got huge, y’all. Space-wise, it seemed way bigger than last year, and there were certainly more people. One of my pet peeves is being in crowds where people don’t seem to realize their giant backpack hits people when they turn around, and this was one of those crowds. However, there were enough good things going on to keep the day from being a crowd-loathing bust.
First of all, being awesome as they are, the American Library Association had a booth. They were smart enough to tailor their trademark celebrity-laden “READ” posters to the crowd at hand – so Nathan Filion, Daniel Radcliffe, and Coraline were adorning their booth. I purchased a canvas bag that says “I read banned books” (to go with the button I got last year that says the same thing) and had a photo snapped with The Great Gusto, who also read my fortune.
Second, if there’s ever been a case of a series of books being turned into a smash hit anything, Charlane Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels becoming HBO’s “True Blood” are a prime example. Much anticipation was in the air because three of the show’s stars – Sam Trammel (Sam the bartender/shapeshifter), Kristin Bauer (Pam the fabulously bitch vampire) and Brit Morgan (crazy werewolf lady Debbie) – were in attendance to sign autographs and take part in a panel.
The panel was a lot of fun, and the actors spoke about everything from spending a work day covered in fake blood and prosthetics, to Sam’s tendency to be naked on the show, to everyone loving Pam. The crowd was enthusiastic and cheered frequently – and boo’ed the mention of sparkling vampires. (Take that, Twlight.)
Third, the Doctor Who store was there and I bought a Donna Noble action figure to accompany the Rose Tyler figure that stands guard over my desk at work. (Had they had any Martha Jones figures, she’d be there too.)
Fourth, the costumes people wear to these things are amazing.
Fifth, many of our friends were also in attendance at the convention. It was great to see Hayley, Scott, Blake, Michael, and Ms. Liz in amongst the crowds of strangers.
Sixth and finally, my husband and I did indeed leave with a backpack bursting with read-able purchases. (I’d like to thank my wonderful and noble husband for carrying the 80,000,000lb backpack, by the by. That’s love, right there.)
Among our purchases -
- “The Return of the Dapper Men” by Jim McCann and Janet Lee, and “An Elegy for Amelia Johnson” by Andrew Rostan. Both came from the Archaia Comics booth.
- “The Sandman: Dream Hunters” which is an addition to the Neil Gaiman Sandman series – which I adore.
- “Artichoke Tales” by Megan Kelso, which NPR apparently loves and which is on the ALA’s list of ten great graphic novels.
- “Suburban Glamour” by Jamie McKelvie – which just looks gorgeous.
These will be reviewed as soon as I can get through them all, I promise.
After an eight-hour day at the convention, we came home. Missions all accomplished, we ordered pizza and fell asleep on the couch while Dateline: Real Mysteries droned on in the background.
C2E2 was exhausting – but rewarding – and I look forward to C2E2 2012.
Though, by then I’ll have a baby in tow. And let me tell you, having watched a couple moms try to navigate strollers through the crowds – that’s not going to be me.
Branch out and read a graphic novel.
The McCarthy sisters have come together to clear out their family home on Martha’s Vineyard after their mothers death. Their father, a boat builder, sailed to Ireland years ago in search of a piece of land he claimed was his birthright, but never returned and is presumed dead. The sisters – Dar, Del, and Rory – are all in the middle of their own dramas; Rory and her husband are divorcing, Del has a son who’s a meth addict in Alaska, and Dar is a moody graphic novelist who lives in her head much of the time. The people who have put a bid on the house are eager to get in and get measurements, but the McCarthy family just wants one more week to remember the summers they spent growing up in the Vineyard.
Dar has never given up on her Dad still being alive, and their lives all go even more up in the air after she decides to go to Ireland to see what happened to him.
Family secrets are realized, relationships break and begin, and sisters grow closer. Everything seems realistic and nothing is melodramatic. Luanne Rice weaves a story that ebbs and flows like the waves the McCarthys constantly look over.
“The Silver Boat” is a lovely piece of fiction. I’ll be sure to hand it to my Mom when I see her next – on vacation this summer in my hometown. Appropriate, right?