David Bowie sang “fame puts you there where things are hollow.” Two new books take a close look at superstar entertainers separated by decades, yet the perks and consequences of fame seem to remain the same. Queen of the Air: A True Story of Love and Tragedy at the Circus by Dean Jensen is the true story of circus aerialist phenom Leitzel Pelikan who rose to international stardom at the dawn of the 20th century. Author Michael Walker looks to the music scene in What You Want Is in the Limo: On the Road with Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper and The Who in 1973, the Year the Sixties Died and the Modern Rock Star Was Born.
The Pelikan’s small family circus had fallen on hard times, and crippled patriarch Eduard was forced to “apprentice” his talented 12-year-old daughter Nellie to Willy Dosta’s traveling troupe in order to feed his family. Nellie, an accomplished acrobat and flyer herself, returned within a year and gave birth to baby Leitzel in 1891. Nellie left her baby in the care of her parents while she trained, traveled and eventually found renown under the tutelage of Edward Leamy. Petite Leitzel showed a gift for the trapeze and Roman rings and soon outshone her mother under the big top. So famous that she was known simply as Leitzel, she commanded a private car in the Ringling Brothers circus train, enjoyed legions of admirers and suitors, and was married several times including to her male trapeze counterpart, Alfredo Codona. Queen of the Air is not only a biography of a legendary aerialist, it is a behind the scenes view of the celebrity and circus life of an earlier time.
Walker’s title says it all; his premise is that 1973 marked a year of intense road tours for “every major act of the era” which ushered in the real ’70s, changing the hippie-ish peace and love culture of the ’60s to a harsher reality of big money, scads of friendly groupies and an unending assortment of illicit substances. Walker tracks the travels and travails of The Who, Led Zeppelin and Alice Cooper whose skyrocketing stars and bulging coffers are directly proportional to the indulgence of their dissolute behaviors. 1973 marked the year of outrageous contract demands, powerful and massive customized sound systems and no-holds-barred stage shows. What You Want Is in the Limo will be enjoyed by anyone who ever held a transistor radio to their ear.
Philipp Meyer’s new novel spanning nearly 200 years of the American West, The Son, opens with the transcription of a 1934 New Deal WPA recording of 100-year-old Eli McCullough’s reminiscences. Eli, also known as the Colonel, discusses his imminent death: in one breath, comparing himself to Alexander the Great and, in the next, dismissing women and marriage. From vests fashioned of scalps, Aztecs as “mincing choirboys,” and vaqueros to Texas rangers, ranchers and oil wells, the Colonel has seen it all and is not shy about sharing his opinions.
Meyer alternates narrators and timeframes by chapter, giving voice to Eli as well as to his son Peter and Peter’s granddaughter, Jeanne. Born in 1834, the same year in which Texas gained its independence from Mexico, Eli’s story is the backbone of the book. As a boy, he witnesses the brutal slaughter of his mother, brother and sister by a band of Comanche who take Eli captive and eventually incorporate him as a member of their tribe. Eli’s later choices reflect his determination to survive despite the torturous customs of his captors. His conduct also mirrors the rapacious actions of a government and its people relentlessly expanding westward into territory already occupied. The Colonel has a contentious relationship with his son Peter, whose chapters play the role of a conscience, ruminating on injustice and cruelty. As the only descendent of the Colonel interested in taking over the family legacies of ranching and oil, great-granddaughter Jeanne reflects on her struggles as a woman managing a vast business in a Texas-style man’s world.
Jeanne muses, “the blood that ran through history would fill every river and ocean…” The Son dispassionately recounts the barbarous atrocities committed by settlers and natives alike. Like the western novels of Larry McMurtry or Cormac McCarthy, Meyer’s writing is notable for its lack of romanticism about its subject. Meyer, who grew up in Baltimore’s Hampden neighborhood, has written a family saga packed with adventure and drama in which the sins of all the fathers have consequences reverberating down through generations.
America’s most famous family feuders are surely the Hatfields and McCoys. Memorialized in cartoons, movies, and recently the subject of a television mini-series, the two clans have become an Appalachian cultural reference. In The Feud: The Hatfields and McCoys: The True Story, author Dean King presents a factual history of the warring families and lays to rest some of the myths perpetuated around the deadly quarrelling which spanned decades.
The Tug River runs between what is now West Virginia and Kentucky. Mountainous and forested, the valley’s inhabitants scratched out a living hunting, timbering, sometimes brewing moonshine. "Devil" Anse Hatfield and Randolph McCoy were each a patriarch with thirteen or more children apiece and a sprawling network of relatives. Hatfields and McCoys lived on both sides of the river and sometimes chose spouses from the other’s clan. Their peaceful co-existence was challenged with the advent of the Civil War; just as Kentucky became a Union state and Virginia chose the confederacy, family members also chose sides and hard feelings developed with the ensuing home guard executions of "traitors" in both states.
King outlines other incidents which intensified the animosity between the families, including the theft of a branded pig, a dispute over timber rights, and the infamous ill-fated romance between Johnse Hatfield and Rosanna McCoy. He thoroughly traces the roots of the hostilities and follows the brutal beatings, home burnings, armed battles, and a court ordered hanging which would eventually claim the lives of well over a dozen people. King uncovered previously overlooked documentary evidence, reviewed legal records and contemporary newspaper accounts, and interviewed descendants of the families, all of which make this book and its fascinating photographs an encompassing study of this deadly vendetta fueled by pride and profit.
In author Gail Godwin’s newest novel, Flora, the aged Helen is remembering the summer of 1945. She lived on a mountaintop outside a small North Carolina town in her family’s once stately manse with her adored grandmother Nonie, described by one of Helen’s few friends as looking like “an upright mastiff driving a car.” Also in residence is Helen’s remote and sarcastic father who usually prefers the company of Jack Daniels to his daughter. Helen’s mother died when Helen was three. Nonie has died, unexpectedly, in the spring and Helen’s father has eagerly accepted a supervisory position at the Oak Ridge, Tennessee military facility, leaving the nearly eleven-year-old Helen in need of a caretaker.
Arrangements are made for cousin Flora to come tend Helen. Flora, a recent teacher’s college graduate, is everything Helen’s “right side of the tracks” family is not; her lack of guile and tender heart are viewed with polite condescension and her stories of Helen’s mother’s estranged family back in Alabama are an embarrassment. Hitler has killed himself but the Japanese are continuing to fight World War II. On the home front, polio has reared its paralytic head, victimizing Helen’s buddy Brian, and soldiers lucky enough to straggle home are bringing their own demons with them. Helen’s father declares that Flora and Helen must remain sequestered on the decaying estate for their own safety.
Writer Godwin is known for her graceful prose, sharply-drawn characters, and is at her best probing family dynamics influenced by Southern Gothic tradition. In Flora, she portrays both a country and a family on the cusp of change, responding to circumstances beyond either’s control. Helen’s struggle to regain her footing in a permanently altered world has far reaching consequences, and Godwin’s careful portrayal of Helen as a child desperately emulating her beloved adults rings sadly true.
Everybody makes mistakes. Most folks get to learn from their errors and move on. On occasion, poor judgment leads to ruinous, far-reaching consequences, examples of which author Bill Fawcett examines in Trust Me, I Know What I’m Doing: 100 Mistakes that Lost Elections, Ended Empires, and Made the World What It Is Today. Starting with the dynasty-destroying actions of the first Chinese emperor in 229 BC and travelling through history to end with the 2011 post-tsunami nuclear reactor meltdown in Fukushima, Japan, Fawcett analyzes the decisions which eventually led to disaster. Some scenarios analyzed by the author are readily familiar to readers, such as the epic failure of 1920’s Prohibition legislation banning booze; instead of routing out poverty and making “hell…forever for rent,” brutal organized crime activity skyrocketed thanks to the lure of the lucrative black market for alcohol. Other examples offer food for thought, such as the premise that President Eisenhower’s support of the tyrannical Shah of Iran paved the way for the current adversarial relationships between Middle East countries and the United States. Each situation presented by Fawcett provides an interesting retrospective on some of history’s seminal events.
Edward Steers also mines history in his book Hoax: Hitler’s Diaries, Lincoln’s Assassins, and Other Famous Frauds. Unlike the unintended consequences revealed in Trust Me, Steers deals with the intentional deceptions of forgers which are foisted upon a sometimes all-too-willing-to-believe public. Steers presents perpetrators who are sometimes motivated by money, as in the “discoveries” of the infamous Hitler diaries or sacred Mormon text. Other times, the finger is pointed by political rivals like those who wanted to taint President Roosevelt’s reputation by claiming he knew about Pearl Harbor prior to the attack but failed to act. The Shroud of Turin? The missing link? Steers weighs in on both outright cons and more subtle mysteries with careful detail and scientific evidence, making both convincing arguments and a fascinating book.
The literary world has never lacked for crime-solving heroines who cleverly and genteelly solve all manner of conundrum. There is, however, a new breed of women in town and they are also cracking cases but in a decidedly angry, messy, and bloody way. Meet Vanessa Michael Munroe in The Doll by Taylor Stevens, and Frieda Klein in Tuesday’s Gone by Nicci French.
Raised in Africa by her American missionary parents, Munroe is tough. She likes to go on missions disguised as a man, has an amazing facility for languages, relishes physical combat, and harbors a rage which drives her to tackle the seamy international underworld of human trafficking. In The Doll, she is working for the independent security firm Capstone when she is abducted by minions of the creepy Doll Man. She must match wits with him in order to save herself and the next “doll.” Author Stevens was raised in the Children of God cult, infamous for its alleged sexual practices involving the children in the group’s care. This is her third book in the fast-paced Munroe series.
British psychotherapist Frieda Klein finds herself working with the police once again in Tuesday’s Gone. Called in to analyze both a bizarre crime scene and the nearly catatonic probable perpetrator of the murder, Klein believes the solution isn’t as easy and obvious as the chief of police would like it to be and is drawn into the investigation. French (actually a husband/wife writing duo) is skilled at creating complex psychological thrillers, and as Klein works to untangle the clues and prove one suspect innocent, she can’t shake the feeling that she is being watched and manipulated. Look for Klein to make repeat appearances in this days-of-the-week series which began with Blue Monday.
Libraries are often thought of as quiet places, with librarians acting as shushing gatekeepers, bespectacled and soft. Josh Hanagarne, a Utah librarian, doesn’t quite fit the stereotype. At 6 feet 7 inches tall, he lifts weights and can bend horseshoes with his hands. He can have trouble with the quiet part, too; he has struggled with Tourette Syndrome since elementary school. Hanagarne writes about strength training, Tourette’s, his Mormon faith, dating, and his urban public library experiences in The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family.
At six, Hanagarne’s parents noticed him repeatedly touching his lip to his nose while onstage during a school play. This initial involuntary movement bloomed into a variety of motor and verbal tics as he entered his teens. Encouraged by his father, he started gym workouts in an effort to exert control over the disorder as well as combat some of the hopelessness he feels when the tics are particularly troublesome. Here, “troublesome” can mean self-injurious, drawing blood, and he notes that his neurologist states that Hanagarne’s case is the most severe he’s seen.
Hanagarne, however, has not written a pity party. He is both an avid reader and a gifted writer and while parts of his story are heartbreaking, much of it is insightful, fascinating, and downright funny. His chapters are named with the Dewey Decimal classification numbers of the subjects contained within. Chapter 7 is "646.78 Marriage", which bodes well since Chapter 3 is "305.31 Lust Religious Aspects Christianity". He shares his evolving views on religion, his fears for his son, and his involvement with weight lifting and body awareness as a means to control his uncontrollable movements. His trenchant observations about public libraries and their patrons illustrate both the diversity of library users and his beliefs that enrich the lives of all those who walk through their doors. He also shares his thoughts and offers bookish advice on his blog also named The World's Strongest Librarian.
Since its launch in 1996, the London-based Orange Prize has recognized the achievements of women authors around the world. Organized partly in response to a perceived bias weighted towards male-authored books receiving literary awards, this prize is judged by a committee of women, issues long and short lists of book contenders and ends with one grand winner. As it undergoes a change in sponsorship this year, the 2013 prize is known as The Women’s Prize for Fiction.
The 2013 short list was announced on April 16, and includes several titles familiar to Between the Covers readers. Probably the least surprising title to appear on the list is Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies. The second in a planned trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, it focuses on the final year of Anne Boleyn’s life and has been heaped with awards and accolades including the Man Booker Prize and the New York Times’ Top Ten Books of 2012. Previous Orange winner and American author Barbara Kingsolver is also named for her book, Flight Behavior. A financially strapped southern family is ready to sell their land to a strip-mining company until they find an immense roost of migratory butterflies has unexpectedly made their mountain a home. New to the prize scene is author Maria Semple, honored for Where’d You Go, Bernadette? A comically satirical look at Seattle and privilege, wife and mother Bernadette has disappeared and it may be up to her daughter to find her.
Another Orange Prize winner, Zadie Smith, is back on the list for her book NW. Described as a “story of a city,” Smith writes about friends from northwest London and examines their progress, or lack thereof, on the ladder of social climbing and upward mobility. The final short-listers are Life After Life by Britain’s Kate Atkinson and A.M. Homes’ May We Be Forgiven. Garnering glowing reviews, Atkinson’s tale begins in pre-WWI England and is centered around a character who dies repeatedly only to return to live her same life again with the ability to alter her choices. DC native Homes introduces the brothers Silver. First-born George’s life is the definition of success--fame, money, a lovely wife and prep school children; younger Harold is a history professor at a community college who moves in on George’s family when George starts to unravel, triggering a calamitous series of events. The complete long list of nominated books can be found on the Women’s Prize website and the winner will be announced on June 5, 2013.
Taiye Selasi’s debut novel, Ghana Must Go, begins with an end. Sai family patriarch Kweku lies in the dewy grass before dawn, slowly dying in his garden amidst a riot of African color and beauty. Get up, call for help, the reader wants to shout at this Hopkins-educated physician; instead, Kweku passively waits for his heart to stop beating.
Selasi’s title refers to the forced expulsion of Ghanaians from neighboring Nigeria as well as to the distinctive, cheap carryall bags in which they stuffed their belongings. Dr. Kweku Sai is from Ghana and his wife Fola is Nigerian. They meet in Pennsylvania where he is completing surgical training and she is in law school. They marry, have four intelligent and driven children, move to Boston, and continue to rack up professional and personal accomplishments. The Sai family epitomizes immigrant success until one unjust and cataclysmic event causes the foundation of the family to crumble and collapse. Written in three sections, “Gone,” “Going,” and lastly “Go,” Selasi allows her characters to reveal the insecurities which enabled their family bonds to stretch, break, and perhaps reform. Recollections, some of which are poignant and others shocking, are integral to understanding each of the family members.
This is a story of Africa and of America, of third world attainment and stellar achievements by anyone’s first world standards, and of a family unraveled and lives destroyed. It is a story of putting one foot in front of the other when one foot is in Africa and the other foot stateside. It is a story of leaving and of rebuilding. With its image-rich prose, acidic observations, and perceptive take on family relationships, Ghana Must Go is also very much a story to enjoy.
When the average Joe hears the word “Scientology,” Joe might think of celebrity devotees like Tom Cruise and John Travolta. Perhaps Joe thinks of founder L. Ron Hubbard and remembers the vast array of sci-fi pulp fiction stories authored by Hubbard. Does Joe, however, know what Scientology is? Is it a religion, a philosophy, a science or a cult? Lawrence Wright, in his book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief takes an in-depth look at Scientology’s founder, Hubbard, and his successor, David Miscavige, the history of the organization, and its beliefs. Miscavige’s niece, Jenna Miscavige Hill, has a turn telling her story in Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape, which she co-authors with Lisa Pulitzer.
In Going Clear, Wright begins with an overview of Hubbard’s erratic early life, which includes stories of bigamy, psychological disturbances, and the near-death experience in the dentist’s chair which led to his formulation of the Scientology doctrine and the publication of what may be its bible, Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. Wright explores the growth of the movement, its appeal to the Hollywood crowd, and especially looks at the elite, highly committed and rigidly controlled Sea Org corps members.
Hill opens Beyond Belief by describing how she, at seven years old, signed a contract binding herself to “the Sea Organization for the next billion years...” As a Thetan, a sort of immortal soul, she would continue to inhabit bodies to fulfill the contract terms. Living on a ranch with other Sea Org children, she saw her parents only on Saturday nights. Her dedication to Scientology remained strong but as the demands of the group worked to increasingly both isolate and punish Hill, she broke ties with the community, as did her parents. Hill’s book is a very personal account of her Scientology experience, while Wright’s take is more scholarly, but both books examine the dichotomy of an organization espousing independent thought as essential to enlightenment while using coercive and intimidating tactics to maintain its membership base.